What separates Rossini’s Il turco in Italia from the opera buffa crowd is the presence of the Pirandello-esque character of the poet Prosdocimo, who is writing the plot of the opera and interacting with its characters even as the plot unfolds onstage. Unlike most stagings, in which Prosdocimo hovers around the edges, Mariame Clément’s new production for Glyndebourne places him bang in the middle at his messy writing desk. As Prosdocimo imagines the characters, they glide in and out from the wings; their exaggeratedly colourful costumes change as he tears up what he’s written and starts again. While he is in control of his characters, they occasionally fight back to hilarious effect, as in the splendid patter trio when Narciso and Geronio threaten him that the result of his shenanigans may be “un poeta bastonato” (a beaten-up poet).

Alessio Arduini (Prosdocimo)
© Glyndebourne Productions Ltd. | Bill Cooper

Giving a nod to the fact that Rossini and Felice Romani’s original opera is decidedly lampooning of the whole opera buffa genre, Clément goes one step further and lampoons modern creative writing and literary criticism courses, projecting a whole alternative story (written by Lucy Wadham) of the “creative process” going on inside Prosdocimo’s head. It’s brilliantly innovative, it’s hilarious and it’s remarkable in being completely consistent with the libretto. In muttered conversations in the interval, people were asking if this was the original opera: indeed it was, just with the addition of many visual cues (and a non-speaking role for Prosdocimo’s somewhat subversive girlfriend, acted entertainingly by Anna-Marie Sullivan). Clément obviously really relishes the comedy in the piece, providing us with a steady stream of visual gags – Rodion Pogossov, our Don Geronio, deserves some sort of award for best ever buffo singing accomplished while performing cheerleader manoeuvres with a string of sausages (for Act 2, designer Julia Hansen has transformed the stage into a lovingly crafted Italian deli).

Elena Tsallagova (Fiorilla)
© Glyndebourne Productions Ltd. | Bill Cooper

It was all huge fun, served with a generous helping of top notch Rossinian bel canto. As Fiorilla, Elena Tsallagova not only looked and acted beautiful and flirtatious, but the runs and decorations cascaded out of her voice like water from a fountain sparkling on a sunny day: there’s no hint of a hard edge and each phrase has lovely shape and weight. Michele Angelini came close to matching that beauty of timbre and elegance of phrasing as her luckless cavalier servente Don Narciso: it’s a role that plays little part in the drama and was bolted on by Rossini when a star tenor became available shortly before the 1814 premiere of Il turco, and Angelini made it into rich entertainment.

Our trio of low voices contributed fully to that entertainment. Alessio Arduini ran the show as Prosdocimo (as is required by Clément’s staging concept), bringing a youthful and virile voice to a role often sung in a more measured way by an older singer. Pogossov was an amiable Don Geronio with admirable flexibility of voice. As Selim, Nahuel di Perro didn’t quite make the desired impact with his big entrance declamation of “Bella Italia!”, but he warmed to his task, and by the time we reached Act 2, he and Pogossov were in rich comic form as Selim attempts to purchase the errant Fiorilla from Geronio, who unaccountably (given the misery that she has made of his life) stands on his dignity and refuses point blank. I won’t completely spoil details of the ensuing fight: suffice to say that vegetables were involved.

Nahuel Di Pierro (Selim), Rodion Pogossov (Don Geronio)
© Glyndebourne Productions Ltd. | Bill Cooper

We’re getting used to the impact of social distancing on opera performances. Sesto Quatrini conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra in an admirably crisp, well-paced and delicately accented account of the score – but we know that there will be that much more energy when regulations are lifted. Unsurprisingly, the Glyndebourne Chorus sounded better when they were allowed on stage. And the acting was generally very good, but it will become even better when contact is permitted (we’ll presumably then lose the by-now-familiar gag of a health and safety officer with a two metre pole trying to keep pairs of characters apart).

Alessio Arduini (Prosdocimo), Anna-Marie Sullivan (Girlfriend), Elena Tsallagova (Fiorilla)
© Glyndebourne Productions Ltd. | Bill Cooper

This was a fabulously fun, musically delicious opera performance built around a staging that is a rare animal: a piece of Regietheater where the concept is aligned with the original libretto with meticulous precision which lasts for the whole length of the piece. If Covid restrictions are lifted, Glyndebourne will be putting another batch of tickets on sale for the rest of the run. Grab one if you can.

Michele Angelini (Don Narciso)
© Glyndebourne Productions Ltd. | Bill Cooper

[Updated 2021-05-25: the review wrongly credited Andrea Mastroni, who was originally cast as Selim but replaced by Nahuel Di Pierro for this performance. Our apologies to both of these singers]