When Munich’s Bavarian State Opera presented Rossini’s rarely heard Il Turco in Italia (The Turk in Italy) this October, all advance signs pointed to another German opera travesty. Rossini’s comic tale of a Turkish prince who becomes romantically entangled with a flirtatious Italian wife simply begs for a postcolonialist gloss, and the director seemed just the man to provide it. Christof Loy is a well-known perpetrator of revisionist opera productions that maul the composer’s and librettist’s intentions (a practice known as Regietheater, German for “director’s theater”). The printed program contained turgid and wildly irrelevant essays by Bulgarian semiotician Julia Kristeva and American sociologist Erving Goffman (such heavy-handed critical apparatus is standard for European houses, which resist the idea that opera is not philosophy). Loy’s own Q and A in the program opined on such themes as the poetization of space and the longing for the unknown, matters which deadline-harassed creators of opera buffa would have regarded with bemusement. Publicity stills for the production, showing a beat-up recreational trailer, confirmed the inevitable updating to modern times: Loy himself, with earring and European hipster neck scarf, looked suitably angst-ridden.
The signs, in this case, were all wrong. Loy’s Turco, originally staged in Hamburg, was a hilarious rendition of Rossini’s battle of the sexes, breathtaking in its imaginative detail and pacing. At a time of moral panic over the male libido and its unruly ways, the production was an unapologetic reminder that libidinal forces run in both directions, conferring power on females as well as on men. The cast was superlative, and the conducting (by Antonello Allemandi) and orchestral playing impeccable, though this was to be expected, since Germany’s musical values remain at the top of the firmament, even as its dramatic compass has gone off course. In this instance, however, all the stars were aligned in Rossini’s favor, showing that beneath German ponderousness runs a still vibrant strain of antic play.
Il Turco takes place in Naples during no particular historical era, despite drawing on literary conventions of chivalric courtship. Loy sets the work in the 1950s, a time when males and females could still flamboyantly exploit their sex appeal without violating political correctness. The stage, designed by Herbert Murauer, is elegantly minimalist, with just a few period props and delicately etched backdrops suggesting a mountain-ringed harbor and domestic interiors. The Turk’s entrance was a marvel of witty, historically conscious stagecraft. Arriving in Italy for his first sightseeing tour, Prince Selim (Italian bass-baritone Ildebrando D’Arcangelo) slowly descends from the rafters on a Persian rug that recalls both a flying carpet and the machines that brought the gods to earth in Baroque stage spectacles. Only hazily visible behind a scrim depicting yachts in a marina, D’Arcangelo reclines languorously on pillows in a white suit and open black shirt, gold chains, and black cowboy boots, his left leg bent up suggestively—the very image of self-regarding Las Vegas-style virility. An impassive henchman in fez and black sunglasses, who will silently shadow the prince throughout the opera, accompanies him on his descent. Filling out the tableau are three pencil-thin females in bikinis who pose motionlessly like mannequins on the sand, embodying jet-set hauteur.
D’Arcangelo’s voice would conquer even without his rugged good looks and glossy black ringlets; his first aria, sung here en route to earth, Bella Italia, alfin ti miro (“Beautiful Italy, at last I look upon you”), enveloped its audience in a smoldering lava-flow of resonance. One listener, waiting mesmerized on the beach, hardly needed persuading. Fiorilla (Russian soprano Olga Peretyatko-Mariotti) is the young second wife of an elderly widower; before Selim’s arrival, she had just made her own frisky entrance in a tight red dress and tiny white cardigan, extolling the pleasures of infidelity and trailing an admirer who was still belting up his pants from their latest tryst. Peretyatko possesses movie-star glamour (especially when, as here, wrapped in silver fox fur) and ample stage charisma; her sultry, full-bodied sound makes Cecilia Bartoli, who recorded Il Turco in 1997 with Riccardo Chailly, sound like a prim school marm. Now sighting a new male on the block, Fiorilla goes into seduction overdrive, breaking out every pinup come-on in the book as Selim lights up like a panther that has just spotted a plump bunny. These two perfectly matched sexual predators gloat in asides about netting their quarry, and grab whatever opposing body parts they can, while formally addressing each other in the rhetoric of courtly love.
This gap between a feigned presentation of the self and the actual emotions that drive us is the main source of humor in Il Turco. When Fiorilla’s hapless husband Don Geronio (Italian baritone Alessandro Corbelli) tries to reassert his authority and rein in her philandering ways, she breaks out the self-pitying sobs, accentuated by a saccharine repeated grace note, while the horns lament in mournful sympathy. Faced with tears, Geronio despairingly bids adieu to his resolve. Next comes the righteous fury, as Fiorilla weaves exultant syncopated trills around an accelerating string pulse. Geronio desperately begs for forgiveness, and penitently tries to help his wife at her toilette by clumsily pulling the curlers from her hair, a touching image of a well-meaning elderly male outmatched by feminine wiles.
It is no coincidence that Mozart’s Cosí Fan Tutte, the supreme deconstruction of the rhetoric of love, shares a history of influence with Rossini’s opera. Lorenzo da Ponte borrowed from an earlier version of Il Turco by another composer in writing the libretto for Cosí, according to Philip Gossett; Cosí was playing at La Scala while Rossini was composing his own Turco to a new libretto by Felice Romani. The emotional deception in the Mozart is deeper and more calculating than in Il Turco, and its victims more unwitting. Rossini’s characters, by contrast, react to the opportunities of the moment, possessing no longer-range goal than satisfying their immediate desires.
Rossini is in fact the most Mozartean of the three great bel canto composers, including in the centrality of the taut, sensually charged baritonal voice (displaced by the nineteenth-century cult of the tenor) and in the role of secco recitativo (lightly sung dialogue accompanied by harpsichord, or, in this production, fortepiano). Recitative is commonly regarded as an unfortunate but unavoidable accoutrement of early opera, but Loy exploits this exquisitely mannered medium as a vehicle for physical humor. When Fiorilla and Selim meet for coffee in her apartments, the fortepiano breaks off and strands the characters awkwardly in a sea of silence, as the sounds of the physical world intrude: Selim lumbering through a tiny door carrying chairs and a tea table, an espresso machine exploding into a vent of steam. D’Arcangelo, who was smitten by Mozart as a child, is a marvelously physical performer. He mugs conspiratorially during these silences at the audience; his exaggerated poses of John Travolta-esque masculinity recall the rococo curves of aristocratic gesture.
The tight stanza structure of Romani’s madcap libretto yokes the characters in rhetorical confrontation. At the start of the second act, Selim amicably offers Geronio a solution to his marital problems: following a fine old Turkish custom, a man whose wife has become a burden can sell her. Geronio replies in the identical verse form, to the same jaunty orchestral accompaniment, that however worthy the Turkish custom, Italians have a better one: the husband clobbers the prospective buyer in the nose. Selim claims not to understand the relevance of this Italian practice, but Geronio, furiously waving a tiny Italian flag, insists that he prefers to follow the usages of his own country. The two antagonists echo each other musically while stripping down to bright silk boxing shorts and taunting each other from a safe distance. Finally they both retreat with hair-raising threats of a future showdown, male pride intact.
The elfin Corbelli is a veteran bel cantist, well known to New York audiences for his Rossini roles—most recently, as Don Magnifico in the Metropolitan Opera’s Cesare Lievi production of La Cenerentola. Despite decades on the stage, he can still unleash a blistering patter aria, here cataloguing in exasperation his wife’s passion for hats, fans, feathers, carriages, and horses. Rossini and Romani add poignancy to the millennia-old character of the foolish cuckold, even as they cook up ever more outrageous humiliations for him. Geronio interrupts Selim and Fiorilla during their coffee tête-à -tête and sarcastically begs permission to enter. Fiorilla sadistically takes his self-abnegation at face value and demands that Geronio kiss Selim’s robe. Geronio bitterly complies, provoking from Selim a stupefied paean to the goodness of Italian husbands. Corbelli and D’Arcangelo physically embodied their characters’ bile and amazement in this audacious scenario. (Norina’s humiliating slap of Don Pasquale in Donizetti’s opera is even crueler, testing further the limits of the comic.)
Loy solves two dramatic challenges in this production, one affecting a wide range of works, the other unique to Il Turco. The masked ball is a ubiquitous literary device that usually requires considerable suspension of disbelief. Not in this case: Loy and designer Murauer staged a masked ball in the second act in which the identities of the participants were truly and eerily concealed under white veils, conical red hats, and black jackets, conjuring Domenico Tiepolo’s Commedia dell’Arte figures. In the background, tuxedo clad dancers writhe slowly in an erotic frieze, while Geronio, the odd man out, hopelessly tries to identify his wife among the interchangeable maskers. The ball scene opens with a hushed a capella quartet whose suspended state recalls the mask trio in Don Giovanni, and concludes with one of Rossini’s most astounding chaos ensembles, Egli é pazzo . . . lo sentite? (“He’s crazy . . . do you hear him?”). The rhythms change constantly, pulling centrifugally against each other, in an onrush of wind and motion. Major harmonies dissolve into minor, in layer upon layer of accumulating force. The coordination among the quintet of soloists, the chorus, and the orchestra was absolute, pinning the listener to his seat in frozen wonder.
The second challenge confronting Loy was more local. Among the opera’s cast of characters is a poet (American baritone Sean Michael Plumb) who is trying to write a play about Geronio and his wife. The device is a harbinger of modernist self-referentiality, and like its latter spawn, adds nothing to the story. It is never clear how much the poet drives the action, but Loy renders the ambiguity irrelevant by turning the poet (here in Brechtian glasses and carrying a satchel of books) into another source of physical comedy. Every time he returns to the stage, he shows mounting signs of abuse. First he sports an eye patch, then he limps on crutches, and finally his head is bandaged like a wounded soldier. The source of this decay is mysterious, but it is a satisfying continuation of the Commedia bastinado tradition. (The velvet-toned Plumb is now a member of the Bavarian State Opera, an example of the migration of superb young American singers to the multitudinous opera opportunities in Germany and Austria.)
The other American in the production also did the U.S. proud. Tenor Michele Angelini took the role of Fiorilla’s knight, Don Narciso, initially seen zipping up his jeans during Fiorilla’s first entrance. Loy predictably made Fiorilla and Narciso’s relationship carnal, a decision by no means dictated by the libretto. At least Loy kept the sex off stage, in contravention of Regietheater practice, and used Don Narciso to parody self-regarding masculinity even further, complete with shoulder rolls and a defiantly jutting chin. Il Turco is predominantly an opera of dueling duets and ensembles, but flashy tenor solos were by then de rigueur, so Rossini gave Don Narciso two. Angelini floated above the orchestra with long legato lines and a supple upper register, free of the dread tenorial lunge.
To male sexual competitiveness, librettist Romani added a female cat fight. Zaida (Romanian mezzo soprano Paula Iancic) is a banished member of Selim’s harem who in Italy has taken up with a group of gypsies. She and Fiorilla, both staking claims to the Turk, go at it with fists and insults in a pitched musical battle ending Act I, as Selim and Narciso try fruitlessly to calm them down. Iancic possesses an unusual skill for an opera singer, besides her agile, warm mezzo: belly-dancing, by which she re-seduces a hypnotized, money-throwing Selim.
Antonello Allemandi drew Rossini’s gallops and glorious crescendi in a perfect arc out of suspenseful quiet; he kept the orchestral voices sharply distinct. The horns, highly exposed during the overture and Narciso’s arias, executed their tricky parts flawlessly. The chorus, first arrayed as gypsies in mismatched, bargain-basement clothes, then as Fiorilla’s debonair, red-rose-proffering supplicants, then as a morally fastidious, disapproving stage crew, was crystalline in its diction and exact in its rhythmic sense, making the Met chorus seem muddy by comparison.
It was too much to hope that Loy would dispense with every modern directorial tic, but at least he deferred his indulgence to the end. Il Turco ends with reconciliation, like every classical opera buffa. Fiorilla returns chastened to her husband’s sweetly hesitant embrace, as the soloists and chorus break out in a joyous hymn to forgiveness. Such non-ironic closure is unacceptable in contemporary stagecraft; cue the “mock-the-bourgeoisie” trope. In the final moments of the chorus, Fiorilla and Geronio settle down on a couch while he channel-surfs and downs two brewskies. Already bored out of her mind, she beckons to Don Narciso. This corrosive undercutting is foreclosed both by the dramatic genre and by the concluding music. But it was an acceptable price to pay for a production that otherwise entered completely into Rossini’s sophisticated, humane humor, complementing it with an astute visual portrayal of human foibles.
Elsewhere in the German-speaking world, it was business as usual. During Il Turco’s run in Munich, a new production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel opened in Stuttgart. Absentee Russian director Kirill Serebrennikow (Vladimir Putin had recently put him under house arrest, but not, presumably, for this production) set the forest fairytale in civil war-torn Rwanda, as a critique of Western imperialism, racism, and consumerism. At the Salzburg Festival a few months earlier, Christof Loy himself had unveiled a production of Handel’s Ariodante that included a gang rape and orgy.
Rossini wrote Il Turco in 1814, a year after his first Turkish-themed comedy, L’Italiana in Algeri. The Metropolitan Opera already has L’Italiana in its current repertoire in an uproarious, architecturally gorgeous period production by the late Jean-Pierre Ponnelle. (Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov most recently starred in the Met’s L’Italiana displaying balletic physical skill.) Metropolitan general manager Peter Gelb would do U.S. audiences a great favor if he brought Loy’s setting of this rarely performed work to New York, to complement the Ponnelle L’Italiana. But it may be too risky to accommodate two comedic treatments, however good-natured, of Muslim-European relations.
In the meantime, Cosí Fan Tutte, the Ur-opera of emotional deception, is about to open at the Met in a new, updated production set in a Coney Island-like amusement park. Updating is at its least risky when a plot does not depend on an aristocratic social structure. That was the case in Il Turco, and to a somewhat lesser extent in Cosí as well. Advance publicity for the new show, directed by Phelim McDermott, suggests an excessively busy, eye-popping set, like Michael Mayer’s Las Vegas Rigoletto. It remains to be seen whether the production will honor the spirit of Mozart and da Ponte, as Loy unexpectedly honored the spirit of Rossini and Romani.
Fiorilla (Olga Peretyatko-Mariotti) and Selim (Ildebrando D’Arcangelo) take coffee. (Courtesy Wilfried Hösl & Bayerische Staatsoper)