Il turco in Italia premiered at La Scala in 1814 when Gioachino Rossini was just 22. Librettist Felice Romani appreciated the composer’s love of pastiche and parody, and his comedy gave the young composer ample chance to mock long-standing traditions. Jan Philipp Gloger’s spicy production here at Zurich Opera gives it an additional twist, resetting the clock from the Ottoman Empire to the Modern age.

Julie Fuchs (Fiorilla) and Pietro Spagnoli (Prosdocimo)
© Hans Jörg Michel

The plot in a nutshell: an insatiable flirt, Fiorilla is bored by her older husband Don Geronio. “I need variety in love,” she admits shortly before falling for the dashing Turk, Selim – much to the chagrin of her current lover, Narciso. The “poet” Prosdocimo watches their antics keenly, looking to make their personal shortcomings into a video project. Cast out by a furious Geronio at first, Fiorilla proves she regrets her behaviour – and is forgiven by her husband. At just about the same time, Selim returns to Zaida, the young Turkish woman who followed him to Italy on the promise of a future together.

Renato Girolami (Don Geronio) and Nahuel Di Pierro (Selim)
© Hans Jörg Michel

It was brilliant of set designer Ben Baur to transpose the setting from the original Neapolitan gypsy camp to the ground floor of a semi-modern block of middle-class flats in an Italian port city. The building on a rotating stage – complete with house number, bike rack and assemblage of personal belongings – houses the principals in separate, ground floor flats, making it easy for each one to be involved in the others’ business. Fiorilla and Geronio have modest amenities; the artist Prosdocimo has museum-sized exhibition posters and a huge monitor for CAD; the newcomer Selim, among his storage and moving boxes, has outfitted his bachelor pad with a huge Turkish hookah and tasselled silk sofa cover. Some of the stage action actually transpires in the washroom, over the buildings’ common washing machine. Yet the stage turning so fast and frequently to reveal the different flats was often even more dizzying than the action in the scenes themselves. So much movement, sometimes almost slapstick and without real reason, was somewhat exhausting.

Jan Philipp Gloger new production is not without its anomalies: In Act 1, for example, there are suggestions that a young child shares the household with Geronio and his wife, Fiorilla. She resents having to pick up building blocks, and a baby appears in the large family photo on the wall. The “child”, however, never appears. A few other untied ends also demand suspension of disbelief: the frustrated Fiorilla and her attractive neighbour cut to the quick of their affair at warp speed, and the Turks and the Italians intermingle with great ease. Granted, quirks often make the great appeal of someone else’s’ story, but that, the two reunited couples ultimately live as closest neighbours in a block of flats was also beyond the power of imagination.

Renato Girolami (Don Geronio), Julie Fuchs (Fiorilla) and Edgardo Rocha (Don Narciso)
© Hans Jörg Michel

The seven principals hail from six different nations – two being Italian, the others from France, Argentina, Uruguay, Mexico and Canada – and nicely underscored the multi-cultural mix we saw on stage. As the incorrigible Fiorilla, Julie Fuchs gave as fine an acting performance as she did a vocal one. Devious and self-serving as her character was, you couldn’t help but love her feisty conviction. Fuchs sustained a degree of sheer brilliance despite huge demands on her voice, and deserves every accolade in her role debut. As her dashing Turkish lover Selim, Nahuel Di Pierro was consistently the strongest of the male singers. His “fight scene” with Fiorilla’s duped husband Geronio, sung by the seasoned baritone, Renato Girolami, was one of the hilarious highlights of the opera; of his rival, each man sings, “I bet there’s no one more stupid on Earth”.

Pietro Spagnoli sang a convincing Prosdocimo, the “poet” cast here as a professional video buff. He forever hopes to capitalise on the sorrier side of the human condition. As such, the role itself was an intrusive one, but his resonant tenor was never less than inviting. Edgardo Rocha sang Fiorilla’s poor outcast lover, Narciso. He had trouble in the higher range at the start, and lacked a degree of modulation, but took better command in Act 2. Rebeca Olvera and Nathan Haller commendably sang the forlorn Zaida and Albazar, respectively. Her manhandling a hookah pipe as a weapon and his erotically-charged pining over the loss of his love were among clever additions to the drama.

Rebeca Olvera (Zaida) and Nahuel Di Pierro (Selim)
© Hans Jörg Michel

Powerhouse conductor Enrique Mazzola coaxed and drew, fostered and subdued, while at the curtain call, was still fit as a fiddle and as jolly. Under his baton, the orchestra delivered a tightly-woven, colour-injected, precisely-defined score. A poignant solo oboe reflected the melancholy of any love-triangle, and Anna Hauner’s continuo fortepiano gave the drama a scintillating undercurrent. Finally, under Ernst Raffelsberger’s seasoned direction, the house choir gave a polished, if busy, performance as both the local Italian and Turk contingents.