Martin Duncan’s Garsington staging of Rossini’s Il turco in Italia isn’t the first to be set in the Italy of La Dolce Vita circa 1960, and it won’t be the last. But I’ll wager that you won’t see another where the acting direction and stage movement is so rich in detail and so full of ideas so brilliantly executed.

Sarah Tynan (Fiorilla) in chorus © Alice Pennefather
Sarah Tynan (Fiorilla) in chorus
© Alice Pennefather

Martin Duncan and Nick Winston (credited as “Movement / assistant director”) might as well have labelled themselves choreographers: the principals and the small chorus are continually in motion around the stage in ways precisely matched to the music. To give just one detail: early in Act II, when the male chorus are singing of the pleasures of love (“Non v'è piacer perfetto, se no 'l procura amor”), three nuns walk past them: they arrive just at the end of the first verse, in time for the lads to fall silent, doff their caps and cross themselves, and move away just in time for the lads to resume their amorous ditty, with one of the nuns casting a saucy backwards look (she is, of course, the flirtatious Fiorilla in disguise).

Katie Bray (Zaida) + chorus © Alice Pennefather
Katie Bray (Zaida) + chorus
© Alice Pennefather

Duncan and Winston litter the opera with dozens of such small conceits: a shawl and a simple change of headwear transforms Zaida from everyday gypsy into exotic fortune teller; Prosdocimo throws crumpled sheets of his plot-in-the-making down to the hapless Geronio and Narciso, who read in disgust that the plot refers to a foolish husband and a spurned lover respectively; in the melée that closes Act I, everyone splits up into a pair of tug-of-war teams attempting to physically drag apart the various embattled couples. Combined with some careful timing of surtitles, this production delivers more laughs and giggles from the audience than I’ve heard in many a year of going to opera buffa.  Francis O’Connor’s sets are simple but attractive and surprisingly effective – the arrival of Selim’s ship is pure, minimalist genius – and his costumes are vibrant and cheerful, with many of them, most notably Fiorilla’s dresses, immaculately tailored. The fancy dress costumes for the Act II masked ball are riotous (although on a hot evening, I pity the unfortunate chorus member sporting the polar bear outfit).

With dozens of Garsington Rossini performances under his belt, conductor David Parry displays the assured touch of an old hand: the pace is always lively without ever dissolving into frantic, there’s bounce and lift whenever it’s needed, and the lyrical passages are delivered with elegance. Not every instrumental solo is perfect, but the slips are rapidly forgiven when the overall musical atmosphere is so engaging.

Geoffrey Dolton (Geronio), Mark Stone (Prosdocimo), Luciano Botelho (Narciso) © Alice Pennefather
Geoffrey Dolton (Geronio), Mark Stone (Prosdocimo), Luciano Botelho (Narciso)
© Alice Pennefather

Vocally, things are more mixed, with Mark Stone’s Prosdocimo at the top of the class. Stone has a strong, smooth-timbred voice and his acting is superb – he is the perfect puppetmaster, literally manhandling the other characters around the stage to suit the way he wants the play he’s writing to develop, or railing when they fail to obey his intentions – but his acting is also supported by clever accenting to always mark his voice out from any surrounding orchestral or chorus wash. Luciano Botelho’s clear, bright tenor impressed in the role of Narciso, as did Katie Bray’s sweet-toned mezzo, making Zaida clearly the right choice for Selim.

Geoffrey Dolton (Geronio), Quirijn de Lang (Selim) © Alice Pennefather
Geoffrey Dolton (Geronio), Quirijn de Lang (Selim)
© Alice Pennefather

While their acting never faltered, the other three principals all suffered somewhat vocally when the pace was ratcheted up. Quirijn de Lang’s Selim, solid enough in the slower passages, lost power; Geoffrey Dolton’s Don Geronio remained entertaining but the buffo patter turned too much into speech; Sarah Tynan lost sweetness, especially when attempting some of Rossini’s more dizzying leaps into the high register. After an unexceptional first two thirds of the opera, Tynan shone when things got serious with “Squallida veste, e bruna”, when Fiorilla finally realises just how much trouble she’s in: Tynan’s voice smoothed out and she delivered a really captivating aria.

In my last review of Il turco in Italia, I suggested that it would never be on anyone’s list of the most thought-provoking operas. Under Duncan’s direction, I’m not so sure: these are characters who treat each other horribly, and the comedy acquires a distinctly hard edge under all the froth. And it’s that hard edge that makes the opera all the funnier and makes the happy ending – which can easily be cheesy – give us a real lift.