Any racial humour there might have been at the first performances of The Turk in Italy in 1814 was very much downplayed in Opera Australia’s new staging of Rossini’s comic opera last night. Instead, this production focused on the slapstick and bawdy elements plentiful in a story where the heroine aspires to betray not only her husband but her existing lover with the eponymous Turk, before her final repentance and return to married virtue. The plot of this farce is matched to some of Rossini’s most characteristically sparkling music, and thanks to a cast that acted as well as it sang, it was laugh-out-loud funny almost throughout.

Emma Matthews as Fiorilla, Paolo Bordogna as Selim, Luciano Botelho as Narciso © Lisa Tomasetti
Emma Matthews as Fiorilla, Paolo Bordogna as Selim, Luciano Botelho as Narciso
© Lisa Tomasetti

In the almost obligatory updating, director Simon Phillips and designer Gabriela Tylesova relocated the action to a US-influenced 1950s Italian beach town. The costumes were prismatic and boldly patterned, and the set was all asymmetric lines and cartoonishly foreshortened buildings. The centrepiece was the Bar Geronio, which could revolve on its axis when quick scene changes were needed. At one point, the prop jukebox was actually used to play some of the music, with Emma Matthews singing along to what was presumably her recorded self. From the beginning, everything was played for laughs, and even the orchestra entered into the spirit of things with a deliberately vulgar glissando at the first pause in the Allegro of the overture.

One crucial factor in the success of a foreign-language comic opera is the surtitling. This English version wasn’t so much a translation as a free adaptation, abounding in vivid phrases such as ‘‘Turkish terrorist! Damn doner kebab!” Colloquial modern terms – nympho, skank, airhead, bonking – were substituted for more staid direct equivalents. Some of these were peculiarly Australian (nong, boof head, root rat), while others seemed to relate to the underlying American theme (shucks, slam dunk, foxy lady). The surtitles did not shy away from the mildly coarse “shit hits the fan”, but retreated to ellipsis for “what the f...?” The latent suggestiveness of the intertwining ivy/oak metaphor in the final reconciliation scene was deprived of its fig-leaf covering of decency, with a series of oh-so-obvious but still hilarious descriptions of “trunks” and “bushiness”.

For successful comedy, physical humour is at least as important as language, and the principal singers relished every opportunity that came their way. They were given some inspired business to perform: soda syphons were squirted in bystanders’ faces, hot sauce ended up in trousers, and suggestive moans or pelvic twitches accompanied anything like amorous interest. At times the humour took on an absurdist edge: at the masked ball scene, where the farcical plot complications reach their height, every man was dressed like Elvis, and every woman like Marilyn.

Emma Matthews clearly enjoyed herself as the misbehaving Fiorilla, flirting outrageously with Selim the Turk and every other man, and singing divinely withal. Her fast-moving passagework was uniformly accurate, and her top E flats deservedly brought the house down. Conal Coad, who played her cuckolded husband Geronio, was in fine fettle in a role that was a gift to one of his comic talents, and his patter singing was fluent and funny. The charismatic Paolo Bordogna had a scene-stealing turn as Selim, and his Act II duet with Coad was perhaps the comic high-point of the evening. Both gesturally and vocally he inhabited his swaggering role as if born to play it. Sam Dundas was excellent as Prosdocimo, in the original a poet who (in self-reflexive fashion) is observing and writing this very opera plot, but here cleverly reimagined as a barman with a scribbling urge. His sudden appearance at the ball dressed as Spiderman got the biggest laugh of the night.

Samuel Dundas as Prosdocimo and The Opera Australia Chorus © Lisa Tomasetti
Samuel Dundas as Prosdocimo and The Opera Australia Chorus
© Lisa Tomasetti
Making her professional debut for the company, Anna Dowsley gave a nerveless and accomplished performance as the love-lorn Zaida, Selim’s once-and-future fiancée. She brought a gamine charm to the role, and her voice had the necessary tonal flexibility for deft characterisation. Somewhat less impressive was Luciano Botelho in the ungrateful role of Narciso. Underwhelming in Act I, he improved considerably in his solo scene in Act II, but the top B flats and Cs he was required to deliver sounded a little thin throughout. Graeme Macfarlane provided able support in his smaller role of Albazar. The chorus hadn’t that much to sing, but contributed hugely to the performance through their on-stage antics.

Andrea Molino led the orchestra efficiently, and there were only a few instances where the singers got slightly out of sync with the band. The continuo-playing of Siro Battaglin, on what sounded like a 19th-century piano, was fluent and imaginative. At the beginning of the ball scene he ventured briefly off the Rossinian beaten path into something that sounded very different. Somehow, it didn’t matter: this kind of genial anarchy was perfectly suited to the spirit of the evening.