Rossini’s Il turco in Italia is a very silly opera. Zaida has run away from Turkey because her lover Selim was (falsely) informed that she was cheating on him and condemned her to death. She’s now telling fortunes with a band of gypsies in Italy, pining for Selim. Selim decides to visit Italy and immediately falls in love with Donna Fiorilla. Selim and Zaida eventually find each other. Selim must choose between the two women. Donna Fiorilla must avoid her husband Don Geronio and her former lover Don Narciso. The dramatist Posdocimo, who suffers from terrible writer’s block, watches, records, and encourages all the action in hopes of extracting an opera buffa plot from it. After a very confusing masked ball in which no one can tell anyone else apart, all ends well, with Donna Fiorilla restored to her husband and Selim and Zaida returning to Turkey together.

© Wilfried Hösl (2007)
© Wilfried Hösl (2007)

Director Christof Loy has a certain genius for comedy. He draws spirited performances from the cast, and many of his gags are genuinely funny. When the entire chorus emerges from an undersized camper van during the overture, it’s hard not to chuckle, and the dramatist Prosdocimo’s ever-increasing catalogue of injuries makes a good running joke. Loy can make brilliant choices that are simultaneously supported by the text and tongue-in-cheek—as when Selim arrives on a flying carpet rather than a ship. It’s clear we’re supposed to laugh at other characters’ obsession with the exotic Orient. (This is reinforced at the end, when we see that the Turkish couple and Italian couple suffer from the same marital problems.)

If only Loy had applied this genius to gypsies and gender relations! But here, his choices of stage business reinforce the libretto's reliance on stereotypes rather than undermining it. (This is especially problematic given the 1950s/60s setting—we don’t have hundreds of years or the aura of fantasy to give us a critical distance from the action onstage.) While Zaida tells Don Geronio’s fortune, gypsy women gleefully steal his money. During Donna Fiorilla’s and Selim’s first encounter, we see men in the background staring at the butts and breasts of women in bikinis and heels. During Zaida’s and Donna Fiorilla’s confrontation, the women in the background get into stereotypical, hair-pulling fights over the very men who’d been rudely leering at them earlier.

If you can ignore these problematic moments of this Turco and focus on the singing, you’re in for a treat. Olga Peretyatko steals the show as the inconstant Donna Fiorilla. In the first act, she literally bowls over a row of choristers with her vocal and physical attractions. “Qual colpo!... Squallida veste…” is the perfect showpiece for Peretyatko. She navigates big intervals and quick coloratura with stunning ease and alternates quickly between sweetly floated pianissimos and boomingly resonant fortes, all while frantically tossing around shoes. The rest of the cast is also strong. As Selim, Alex Esposito begins with an impressive crescendo and continues to display an agile voice and suave character throughout. Renato Girolami (Don Geronio) and Nikolay Borchev (Prosdocimo) both possess strong bass voices and the ability to sing words very quickly. (There’s plenty of patter in this piece.) Antonino Siragusa (Don Narciso) is too nasal a tenor for my taste, but he certainly knows how to play the crowd, milking every high note and disco-dancing during his arias. As Zaida, Marzia Marzo shows off a lovely light lyric voice, albeit one that sounds a bit small for a house the size of the Nationaltheater.

Maestro Paolo Arrivabeni keeps the Bayerische Staatorchester balanced and coordinated with the singers, with the exception of a few brief disconnects during fast numbers (always swiftly resolved). The brass section sounds particularly lovely, especially in the overture. The whole opera drags on a bit for a comedy, but that’s as much the fault of the director (who should have made more cuts) as the conductor.

This cast and orchestra are well worth seeing and hearing. The staging has great comedic moments. But the racism and sexism of the production made watching this Turco an uncomfortable experience.

**111