Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868)
Il turco in Italia
Erwin Schrott (bass) – Selim
Olga Peretyatko (soprano) – Fiorella
Nicola Alaimo (bass) – Geronio
René Barbera (tenor) – Narciso
Chorus of the Theatro della Fortuna M Agostini
Gioachino Rossini Philharmonic/Speranza Scappucci
Davide Livermore (staging and sets)
rec. live 2016, Teatro Rossini, Pesaro, Italy
C Major 762604 Blu-Ray [171]

The opening of this video is profoundly discouraging to anyone who, like myself, has an innate and instinctive dislike of modern opera productions which place the whims and eccentricities of the director over and above the music and drama itself. There is some spoken dialogue, the significance of which is unclear, and then when the orchestra begins to play the overture (all ten minutes of it) are seen as accompaniment to a series of tableaux which appear to be representing a silent movie of the 1920s, with billowing black-and-white drapes and gauzes and the characters adopting frozen poses. But thankfully this is a momentary aberration, and those who can persevere through those opening ten minutes will be amply rewarded.

It becomes clear, once the action proper begins, that we are in a sort of fantasy film world inhabited by Fellini-like grotesques and caricatures who populate the stage throughout. But this does have some justification from the original text as set by Rossini, where the dramatic action is represented as an attempt by Prosdocumo, described variously as a poet or playwright, to stage a drama that will teach a lesson to the errant wife of his friend Geronio. This extends logically to the depiction of Prosdocumo as a script-writer and film director, who is staging the whole charade with a moral purpose. It helps to explain the abrupt juxtapositions of costume, setting and action as he manipulates his characters through the scenario that he has devised for them. It also serves to bring about an abrupt change of tone towards the end, when his machinations appear to have backfired so far as to bring about a separation between his friend and his wife Fiorilla, who is threatened with abandonment and destitution. Only Geronio’s forgiving temperament brings about a reconciliation, in which for once the tenors are left abandoned on the sidelines while the basses romp off with the women.

The conceit of the improvised film production playing itself out in front of our eyes produces some marvellously comic moments. When Geronio and the Turk Selim find themselves about to engage in a duel, stage assistants rush to provide them each with scimitars for the purpose; and when, a few minutes later, they are reconciled, the same assistants relieve them of these weapons in order to return them to the props cupboard. When Narciso decides in his turn to disguise himself in Turkish costume (don’t begin to ask about the plot), he simply strips off his outer clothes to reveal the full disguise already in place beneath, aided and abetted by a costume-fitter who appears to double as his dominatrix in her spare moments. The plot of Il turco in Italia, generally and justly regarded as Rossini’s ineffective attempt to repeat the success of his Italiana in Algeri a year earlier, can rather lack the sense of fun that is needed. These additional visual incidents serve to enliven a plot that can seem rather laboured, especially when the score is played without cuts as here.

What makes the whole enterprise so rewarding is the sheer quality of the performance. All the singers with the exception of the Turk himself and Fiorella are Italians, and their engagement with their own language pays ample dividends in the adroitness of the rapid delivery and the engagement with the recitatives. In the title role, Erwin Schrott makes a marvellous change from the occasional forays into this repertory that we have heard in the past from heavyweight German basses – I recall with some degree of horror a Cimarosa video featuring Josef Greindl which I reviewed a decade ago. There is never the slightest suspicion with Schrott of any clumsiness in handling either the texts or the notes. His duet with Geronio at the beginning of Act Two shows both singers at their superb best; Nicola Alaimo’s delivery of the ‘patter’ music at machine-gun pace is a marvel to hear, and the sense of comic timing here is wonderful to behold as well. Both tenors, René Barbera and Pietro Adaini as the two rejected suitors, have sparkling technique and whole sheaves of coloratura to spare. Pietro Spagnoli as the puppeteering director has plenty of vim and vigour even when struggling to cope with his pseudo-classical Roman costume or hiking his typewriter around from table to table. Olga Peretyatko shows a slight thinness on her very highest notes, but they are still solidly in place and she compensates by some quite startling expeditions well down into the vicinity of the bass clef during one or two passages. Cecilia Molinari is a huskily full-voiced Zaida; but the depiction of her as a bearded lady (Baba the Turk, perhaps?) means that her seduction of Selim in disguise becomes simply incredible.

Speranza Scappucci’s conducting is splendidly alert. The skirling piccolo add all the brilliance and edge that Rossini needs. The choral singing too is marvellously full-bodied. There is never any sense here that we are hearing Rossini at anything less than full dramatic pelt, and so the whole performances fizzles. The critics at the original performances of this staging seem to have been rather less impressed – Hugh Canning in Opera described the production as “pantomime farce” and the conducting as “lacklustre” – but maybe the live recording was taken from a later performance when things had settled down a bit.

I had some difficulty in locating the subtitles – the option to select them is missing from the front menu on the disc – but they are to be found, and come in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish, Korean and Japanese. The picture is crisp and clear, and the cameras always point where they are needed. The copiously illustrated booklet comes with a full track listing, synopsis and brief essay in English, German and French. I am not sure why this recording has had to wait seven years to appear, but it was well worth the wait.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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Additional cast
Pietro Spagnoli (baritone) – Prosdocimo
Cecilia Molinari (mezzo-soprano) – Zaida
Pietro Adaini (tenor) – Albazar

Production details
Gianluca Falaschi (costumes)

Video details
Sound formats: PCM stereo, DTS-HD MA 5.1
Region code: ABC
Picture format: 1080i, 16.9 HD