Opera Australia brings sunny summer back to Melbourne in this featherlight confection, a neat contrast to the sturm und drang of the season’s other three offerings.
An ideal vehicle for Australia’s First Lady of opera, The Turk in Italy, gives nightingale Emma Matthews a bel canto workout of the highest order. Pampered leading lady Fiorilla lives in a swirl of passion, vanity and deception, ever juggling the coterie of panting men she attracts. Multi-award winner Matthews takes the effervescent role in her merry stride, giving a vivacious performance and letting forth a multitude of trails and cadenzas, not to mention amazing high notes. Matthews saves her cleverest trick for last, when she turns on a dime to flip Fiorilla’s final showy series of arias into an affecting moment of pathos as we realise that Fiorilla is insecure underneath and really loves her husband. Matthews’ delicately emotional performance at this point is a masterclass in bringing the audience to you, a welcome relief from the ram-it-down-their-throats seen on other stages.
Matthews’ vocal fireworks aside, a chief attraction of the production is the delectable design of Gabriela Tylesova. Centred around a Neapolitan bar that rises like a wedding cake from Brunnetti, the setting summons sunny Sorrento splendour with delicious wit and devilish detail.
Costumes are equally witty, from the bathing beauties in citrus gelati tones to the costume party populated by a sea of Elvis Presleys and Marilyn Monroes. The titular Turk, presented as a cross between Borat and Kramer, begins in a purple zoot suit before switching to electric blue in act two. Leading lady Fiorilla goes through a full wardrobe of splashy outfits. Her red dress is adorned with festive bubbles painted along the hem. She tests the Turk’s fidelity in disguise as a curvaceous Eliza Doolittle in black silk and massive hat.
Simon Phillips direction and concept infuse the production with generous doses of fun and frivolity. A wickedly funny touch throughout is Phillips’ broad translation used in the surtitles, keeping the meaning but running through the lexicon of modern day insults and curses. Energy is high and visual comic touches are plentiful, but some of the physical comedy does not land; perhaps this is because some key cast members are new since the Sydney summer premiere season. For much of the time, Phillips’ level of invention fills the stage with a parade of colour and movement, and yet there are still scattered patches where the liveliness dies away to nothing. The cast will no doubt find new moments in the comedy as the season progresses.
Maestro Anthony Legge’s conducting of Orchestra Victoria seems a tad on the cautious, meaning that, truly lovely though it is, the music does not really take full flight.
Rossini and his librettists use a neat framing device for the plot, having a hungry poet take feverish note of the outlandish romantic entanglements as details for his next play. Samuel Dundas is perfectly cast as Prosdocimo, sunnily charming the audience into accepting each twist and turn due to their benefit to his writing.
Young mezzo-soprano Anna Dowsley makes her Opera Australia debut with the role of lovelorn gypsy Zaida. Most often hidden under wig and makeup, Dowsley’s natural charm still shines through, and her pure, well-defined singing voice is a pleasure to hear.
Andrew Moran manages very well with Geronio, a typical Rossini buffoon, but a singer who did not need to be made up and padded to fit the part may have had a more authentic touch. Shane Lowrencev makes a splash as Selim, the Turk, ramping up the ribald sexual energy of the licentious visitor and singing the role with flair. Splendid tenor John Longmuir sounds wonderful as Narciso, yet another man enamored with Fiorilla, but is a little too stiff and understated for the comedy. Highly experienced Opera Australia singer Graeme Macfarlane is luxury casting in the utterly thankless role of fellow gypsy Albazar.
An ideal opera for newcomers and for those who prefer their opera light and fluffy, The Turk in Italy is a pleasurable diversion to the early onset of Melbourne winter. Admirers of Tylesova’s work will also have to wait a very long time until we ever see her designs produced on this grand a scale in the word of music theatre. Fans of Emma Matthews will also not want to miss her only Melbourne opera appearances for 2014.
The Turk in Italy plays plays selected dates at State Theatre, Melbourne Arts Centre, until 13 May 2014.
Photos: Jeff Busby
This review published on Theatre People 2 May 2014.