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A Smart "Turk in Italy" Does Not Cheat on Fun

By Donna Perlmutter
Published: Monday, February 21, 2011, at 02:33PM
The Turk in Italy Robert Millard

Nino Machaidze (R) as Fiorilla in LA Opera's staging of "The Turk in Italy"

It’s raucous. It’s also refined. It’s inspired. Sophisticated. Extraordinary. Clever. Engaging up to gazoo. So run to the Music Center Pavilion before it’s too late because I don’t know when something of this calibre will pass our way again. And even if opera buffa and its cutesy-corny conventions can leave some of us flat, I promise that LA Opera’s production of “The Turk in Italy” will have you floating in the air.

Why? Because Christof Loy’s production, transported from Hamburg and faithfully entrusted here to Axel Weidauer, boldfaces the work as a parody of the genre.

Imagine that. Rossini had the wit and perspicacity to make fun of himself and the whole 19th century conceit of sight gags, of slapstick involving fat old men, young nubile girls and their interfacing deceptions – all in the pursuit of love trophies and money. He even made fun of the requirement that such a free-for-all end with a Morality Message.

What’s weird is that “Il Turco in Italia” seldom gets staged, leaving “Barber of Seville” as Rossini’s most popular comedy. (In fact, some even have a laugh at his narrative fetish, with the plot revolving around the idea of a foreign interloper—besides “The Turk in Italy,” there’s “The Italian Girl in Algiers.”)

But I’ve never seen a more perfectly-timed vaudeville shtick than this: Onstage, and before the conductor arrives, we stare at the sole object, a dinky, dingy little trailer with a capacity of maybe three people. Once past the overture we watch as full-grown folks emerge from its door – one, two, then several more stretch and yawn spreading blankets, putting up tables and chairs. Finally, those few become a crowd of 100, with the audience laughingly convulsed the whole time.

Just afterwards an image hits: Fellini meets the Fonz.

The Italian Gypsies (remember them in “La Strada?”) who tangle with their wealthy dupes form the background as we get a silent cameo of a sexy married lady in a momentary tryst with, yes, the Fonz, her wanna-be boyfriend.

And the characterizations that follow throughout, superbly re-enforced by costume/set designer Herbert Maurauer, pull the whole thing together fluidly, with pinpoint accuracy, always illuminating the delicious score with its pretty melodies and appealingly clever ensembles.

Surely no one benefits more from the directorial hand than Nino Machaidze, who sings the opera’s central character, Fiorilla. The Tbilisi-born soprano wins the pin-up-girl-posing, lipstick-dabbing, hip-switching sweepstakes as every man’s object of desire, a fetching frou-frou through and through. Not only is she a master of bel canto ornamentation in all its facets but her giggling coloratura in the first act and her gorgeously despairing aria in the second – long and difficult – mark the singing actor as a rival to any other star. She’s simply an inspired comic, with the flair to magnetize even the resistant.

And her scene with husband Geronio, the de rigueur cuckold, cuts ingeniously to the heart of a woman’s power if she knows how to wield it: while he’s pleading with her to stay in the marriage and not run off with the Turk, she flounces around busily, towel-dries her hair, sets it in a few becoming red rollers and, as he’s fast-talking her, he becomes an attendant – taking over the intricate job of undoing the rollers. But no amount of superlatives can tell how flabbergastingly wonderful is the adept, real-life action and simultaneous singing that happens in this duet.

Throughout, Paolo Gavanelli creates a Geronio who is manly, a little stout thanks to his prosperity, and who sings his patter songs with agility in a resonantly assertive baritone. Thomas Allen, that adroit comedian with a lighter baritone, made a deftly bumbling, yet elegant Poet, formulating this libretto-within-a-libretto as it goes along and poking much fun at how scripts are concocted.

The Fonz character, Narciso, didn’t quite know how to hold onto the impersonation beyond the opening scene. But with his small, finely focused, high tenor he proved himself a champion of bel canto fioriture. As the title character, Simone Alberghini created a believable visual picture of a modern-day Pasha in his white suit, hoop earring and dark glasses, but strayed uncomfortably from pitch much of the time while Kate Lindsey made a somewhat pale Zaida, the fugitive harem girl.

The show’s overriding hero, though, was James Conlon, who coaxed from his pit orchestra degrees of Rossinian rhythmic bounce and brio and suavity we usually only hope to hear -- and illuminated those moments of lonely introspection the composer also recognized so humanly.

"The Turk in Italy" runs through March 13.

Donna Perlmutter is an award-winning critic, journalist and author. Formerly the chief music/dance critic for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, she contributes to the Los Angeles Times and other publications.

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