Several elements influence our enjoyment of an opera, but not always to the same extent. While the libretto and the production is important, even more so is the composition and the performance. Convoluted stories can be forgiven for the beauty of the music (Trovatore comes to mind). The composer might regard the narrative as essential and become the author of both music and libretto, as Wagner did. It can even happen that the text is humdrum, and the music, while pleasant enough, is not the composer’s most inspired opus. In such cases, the production and its performance can save the day, or make it memorable.

Stacey Alleaume (Fiorilla) and Paolo Bordogna (Selim) © Keith Saunders
Stacey Alleaume (Fiorilla) and Paolo Bordogna (Selim)
© Keith Saunders

Many of Gioachino Rossini’s operas potentially fall into this last category, with Opera Australia’s revival of Il turco in Italia being a perfect example. Somewhat reminiscent of Luigi Pirandello’s absurdist drama, Six Characters in Search of an Author, the storyline centres on the Writer, disguised as a hapless waiter (you have to make a living, after all), with the obligatory writer’s block, trying to pen his masterwork. As tangled events swirl around him, they provide inspiration and thus, his plot thickens with each new patter song (tongue-twisting rhymes sung at rapid speed, familiar from Mozart’s operas as much as from Gilbert and Sullivan).

Turco inspired many a great opera director in the past; understandably, as it offers plenty of splendid comic situations. Simon Phillips' 2014 production (ably revived by Andy Morton) provokes a giggle every minute. Here ludicrous, there touchingly tender, the jokes are an omnipresent contribution to the success of the evening, notwithstanding their many sexual references ranging from sweet through to bawdy all the way to lewd. Nothing is taken too seriously here, and this is as it should be.

Phillips is also credited for the surtitles. This presumably means that he wrote the seriously modernised, witty English translation with enough double entendres to match an early James Bond film (“I’m a little succulent” – begins Fiorilla’s belated confession of love). Gabriela Tylesova’s set is light-hearted, light-shaped and emphatically retro, from Don Geronio’s revolving, see-through bar to the charmingly tacky, 1950s costumes. They exude the sunlit atmosphere of the Italian seaside, well matched by Nick Schlieper’s lighting.

Warwick Fyfe (Geronio) and Stacey Alleaume (Fiorilla) © Keith Saunders
Warwick Fyfe (Geronio) and Stacey Alleaume (Fiorilla)
© Keith Saunders

The orchestra under the tasteful and stylish conducting of Andrea Molino played reliably, although some of the wind solos were not to the standard one would expect from this fine company. Siro Battaglin’s excellent continuo playing added pace and refinement to the recitativos.

Making Prosdocimo, the Writer who pulls all the strings, the main character of the opera could work well, but it was not the case here. Samuel Dundas is almost always on stage, mixing mean cocktails and nodding at the one-liners that he inspired (or did they inspire his play?); however, both his acting and pleasant voice are too light to make him a commanding figure.

The role of Narciso does not add much to the progress of the story. Virgilio Marino wisely adds comic touch to the part, with possibly one too many deodorant jokes. His voice struggles when he is not careful. His public costume change in Act 2 turns him into an hilarious Elvis Presley – as it turns out later, one of about a dozen. The darky lit scene at the dress-up party could easily remind the listener of Verdi’s Falstaff being humiliated in the forest, had confusion not set in with ladies in identical Marilyn Monroe costumes paired with their Elvis partners.

Anna Dowsley (Zaida), Paolo Bordogna (Selim) and chorus © Keith Saunders
Anna Dowsley (Zaida), Paolo Bordogna (Selim) and chorus
© Keith Saunders

Anna Dowsley’s singing is gaining confidence and her acting is improving every time I see her. She turns the role of Zaida, the gipsy girl, into a force to be reckoned with, her clear singing well-articulated and an eye-catching stage presence. Her opponent, Fiorilla (Stacey Alleaume), the wife of Don Geronio conquers every note of her formidably difficult vocal part as well as – ultimately – Geronio’s heart. Her high notes get somewhat distorted in loud dynamics; nonetheless, her final aria brought the house down.

How such charming ladies would fall in passionate love with the ageing ruffian of Paolo Bordogna’s Selim, the Turk, is something only possible in opera. His vexatious character reminded me strongly of the brash Baron Ochs from Der Rosenkavalier, a character further exaggerated by Phillips’s direction. Bordogna is Italian, so no wonder that both his buffo patter and Rossinian phrasing rolls like a smooth carpet, even if occasionally the control of his voice and pitch stumbles.

Warwick Fyfe demonstrated again his versatility on the opera stage. Far from his power-hungry Teutonic villain role as Alberich in the Melbourne Ring cycle not long ago, he is both vocally and scenically flawless as the likeable-laughable blundering husband, Don Geronio. His final scene of mutual forgiveness adds a human touch to the kaleidoscope of farce.

****1