What distinguishes Rossini's Il turco in Italia from a hundred other opere buffe is the figure of Prosdocimo, the poet who is creating the opera as we go along. In Mark Lamos' production for Bergen National Opera, Giorgio Caoduro's Prosdocimo is young, brash, exuberant, overflowing with enthusiasm, the puppet master who is pulling all the strings – literally, because Lamos has created puppet replicas of Fiorilla, Geronio and Selim who battle out their stormy love triangle in a puppet theatre in parallel with us seeing them in real life.
From the off, Lamos and designer George Souglides go for visual impact, with the prime components being costumes and movement rather than the sparse sets. The chorus are Pulcinella clones in primary colours or Turks in black robes with tall shakoes or huge Suleiman the Magnificent-style turbans: they tumble, they juggle, they twirl. Fiorilla’s red gown is a model of haute couture elegance, while Don Geronio’s ruffled pink outfit is – well, striking. In the Act II masked ball, Souglides and his team of costume makers turn the bling up to eleven: the chorus wear exquisite white satin shot through with silver thread and gems; Fiorilla and Zaida are in miraculously wide scarlet ballgowns; Selim and Narciso in frock coats to match. The ruffled clouds of white satin spin in complex patterns on a revolving stage, their glitter is reflected from ceiling-high counter-rotating mirrors: the effect is breathtaking.
Overall, the staging is very much abstract: we never see Selim’s ship, Fiorilla’s bedroom or the inn where everyone meets. But it works: we’re not in any doubt as to how the (tangled) storyline is progressing. And given Rossini’s famously gluttonous nature, any staging of his operas which includes a pair of metre-tall cupcakes and an even bigger fruit bavarois gets my vote.
The female roles were sung well but didn’t hit the same heights. Sylvia Schwartz threw herself into the role of Fiorilla and acted well, impossibly flirtatious without being actually tarty, and genuinely touching in the scene of her final repentance; her voice was lovely at the low end but lost its warmth and acquired a harsh edge when notes were hit high or hard. Cecilia Molinari provided a good foil but little more – then again, the role of Zaida doesn’t give a great deal of opportunity for the mezzo to shine.
The Grieghallen wouldn’t be your first choice of hall for Rossini – it’s a hall that will take a Mahler or Shostakovich symphony without complaint, so it’s a touch unforgiving for a smaller orchestra playing lighter music from inside an orchestra pit. However, Domingo Hindoyan kept everything light and airy, and a number of instrumental uncertainties at the start were forgotten as the players warmed up and improved through the course of the evening.
Il turco in Italia is never going to appear in anyone’s list of the most thought-provoking operas. So what you hope for is some great singing, great fun and plenty of romantic froth and visual spectacle, and this production ticks all of those boxes as well as providing a masterclass in costumery. It was the opera’s Norwegian première, held in a city where the opera company is just ten years old and the audience hasn’t seen much outside top ten repertoire: on the evidence of last night, we'll be seeing plenty more Rossini here.
Update: Sylvia Schwartz has withdrawn from the performance on March 27th due to illness. She will be replaced by Nino Machaidze for this performance.
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