Many won’t believe having fun at the opera is a possibility, let alone one where we the audience are given an opportunity to laugh heartily at the silliness of our human frailties!
Opera Australia’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s comedic tour de force The Turk in Italy does just that and, splendidly.
The opening night of Rossini’s R rated romp at the State Theatre in the Arts Centre, was a true Turkish delight, bringing plenty of sunshine to an otherwise grey Melbourne winter day.
With a libretto by Felice Romani, after a libretto by Caterino Mazzola, the show was definitely a ‘flirt fest’ as the local lad, an overweight Iti dago called Geronio, together with a slim spivvy Turk named Selim, endeavour to outdo each other singing songs as they colourfully compete to win the heart of a Christian Dior clad Sheila and, without any Spag Boll in sight.
On stage as part of the action was a select coterie of scene stealing sirens, sexpots, slick looking guys wearing shiny suits, bathing suit clad boys as well as gregarious gypsies.
They are all kept very busy down by the seashore, where there was definitely a whole lot of ‘skanking’ going down.
The score itself was as sweet as any confection. It rose more than a few times to all new heights with lots of lovely melodies and rousing choruses.
They came to a climax as the stage swarmed with white satin and rhinestone clad Elvis Presley’s dancing with blonde bombshells a la Marilyn Monroe.
The girls were all decked out in Marilyn’s iconic white pleated swirling halter neck number from The Seven Year Itch.
They were enjoying wearing those as much as the stunning suite of 50’s style colourful costumes they had worn as bathing beauties in the opening number.
Was wishing our fashion editor was there at that juncture!
The insertion of a ‘Love Me Tender’ moment into Rossini’s rousing score by a stylish pianist for the orchestra was wonderfully timed.
My opera buddy and I both agreed this is the perfect opera production for introducing senior high school students to the joys of classical music.
Set in Italy during the 1950’s, 60’s or was it the 70’s at a local and very cool café down by the seaside, much like the one where I spent some of my misspent youth, this production was designed brilliantly by Gabriela Tylesova with a light hearted and fashionable touch.
Was also wishing the café itself was at the bottom of my street.
There were two major elements for me that gave the show a wonderfully warming down to earth humanisation of opera rarely seen, making it totally accessible to the world we inhabit today.
The first was the wonderful translation of the Italian, so brilliantly conceived and delivered by the production’s director Simon Phillips. Adults only in parts, they were captivating and very cool!
The dialogue was clever, cutting edge, cute in parts, completely crass in others, full of good cheer, often charming and terribly terribly clever.
Those who often take their opera entertainment far too seriously were struggling not to fall about both with enthusiasm and laughter.
All those crazy offensive cultural terms and references plus the colourful terms of blasphemy we have accumulated over the years and sometimes shrink at, were included.
They were layered in so creatively there was no way anyone would really be offended, only wonderful amused, bemused and delighted.
What Phillips did was allow our current society an opportunity to laugh at how silly human beings are without feeling embarrassed.
The second element was Australia’s ‘barihunk’ Samuel Dundas as Prosdocimo, the poetic bartender at the local café. His wonderful characterisation combined just the right mixture of larrikin and charm with someone enjoying a great lark.
Endeavouring to write a successful play, he spends the entire time letting the audience in on his potential script which he’s taking from the action as it’s going down around him.
Full of twists and turns, he kept us all up to date and happily in tune with the proceedings while delivering a powerful and delightful performance with great élan.
It’s simple really if the people on stage are having a good time in a comedic show opera or otherwise, so will the audience.
The creative visuals and excellent choreography, particularly the clever opening beach scene with the boys having a chaotic time with folding canvas beach chairs, were too delicious.
Together with the colourful costumes they added a rich rewarding layer of such sweet stuff the whole appeared like a yummy layer cake.
The icing on the top was a wonderful ensemble cast of singers.
Channelling her inner ‘Callas’ and deliciously enjoying the comedic milieu, while either wearing her Christian Dior style day dresses or slinky swami petticoat and full-length mink coat, British born Australian based lyric soprano Emma Matthews sang at the top of her game and coloratura range.
As the local temptress Fiorilla, she really got into her character with great gusto! She nearly lured the spivvy rock jock crotch-clutching broad bonking Turkish prince Selim, she was endeavouring to seduce, onto the high seas so she could sail away from her own boring ordinary life and husband.
Predictably fate steps in and ultimately delivers the hero back into the arms of the woman who truly loves him. In the meantime a great deal of fun is had by all.
Matthews was a sensational siren of the sea and she certainly won the audience to her side on opening night. She was daring, delightful and delivered the final sensational great aria with pure pathos. It was a true knock out.
As Selim, aka baritone Shane Lowrencev, relished his role with devilish delight – he was sleazy, slick, oily, and wonderfully in character’, modeling his moves seemingly on a cross between Kramer from Seinfeld and Danny Zuko from Grease, but even more exaggerated, although with just the right comedic touch.
He had the audience in fits of laughter one minute, while admiring his musically perfectly assured voice and singing the next.
Alongside Emma, Samuel and Shane the fine cast included Melbourne baritones Andrew Moran as Geronio (the husband), tenor John Longmuir as Narciso (Geronio’s doublecrossing friend), soprano Anna Dowsley as Zaida (the spiv’s true love) and Graeme Macfarlane as Albazar (gypsy leader).
Anna Dowsley was a pretty but also very sad Zaida in the first half who ultimately regained her smile and her man with some very sweet and soulful singing in the second.
Graeme Macfarlane gave a good, although not great performance and the tenor John Longmuir sang both brightly and with very clear diction and feeling.
Andrew Moran as Geronio certainly shone in terms of the voice, although he seemed somewhat hampered in his movements by too much padding.
Would have preferred to have seen him expanding his excellent repertoire of facial expressions and gestures for convincing us of why his wife would want to leave him, rather than see him obstructed in that way.
Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868) who composed this comedic tour de force famously boasted he could set a ‘laundry list’ to music. He was a giant of the Italian opera world in the nineteenth century, a gourmand as well as a musical genius.
He was nicknamed ‘Monsieur Crescendo’ by the young people of Paris, as they paraded their admiration for him and his music at the time, and so did we in ours.
The boys of the Opera Chorus were just terrific; the audience rousingly appreciated that they were not afraid to strip down to their swimmers on stage and proudly thrust forward their assorted beer bellies, tattoos and hairy legs and chests for us all to marvel at, while keeping a straight face and staying in character.
While many are used to their opera being a lot more serious than this comedic tour de force, with its many ludicrous and luscious moments, this was a very special piece of both composing and character acting that was combined with sensational singing and staging.
Would be a great show to tour in regional cities of Australia.
My opera buddy and I enjoyed this production immensely; sometimes outrageous, other times with its personal touch and joie de vivre we agreed it’s the sort of show that really needs to be layered into the OA’s cycle of reasonably regular repertoire.
Why, because it’s a personal experience of pure delight in which the singing is never compromised by its comedic highlights, as well as one in which the audience is treated inclusively while being entertained enormously.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2014
The Turk In Italy
Music: Gioachino Rossini
Libretto: Felice Romani, after a libretto by Caterino Mazzola
Conductor: Andrea Molino
Director: Simon Phillips
Designer: Gabriela Tylesova
Lighting Design: Nick Schlieper
FIORILLA Emma Matthews
NARCISO – John Longmuir
GERONIO – Andrew Moran
SELIM – Shane Lowrencev
PROSDOCIMO – Samuel Dundas
ZAIDA – Anna Dowsley
ALBAZAR – Graeme McFarlane
Opera Australia Chorus