Vienna, Virginia— The Wolf Trap Opera Company’s brief, wacky, and recently concluded run of Rossini’s Il Turco in Italia (The Turk in Italy) was, in a sense, a creative follow up to the company’s June production of Zaïde, the youthful Mozart’s unfinished opera. Both operas either echo or foreshadow Mozart’s popular, Turkish-oriented singspiel, Die Entführung aus dem Serail (Abduction from the Seraglio). And all three, in turn, dovetail with Franz Joseph Seydelmann’s now-forgotten 1788 opera, also called The Turk in Italy.
It seems that exotic stories of foreign abduction, whether serious or comic, were very much in vogue on late 18th and early 19th century stages. And with that topical popularity, it’s not surprising that many works would recycle and reinvent some of the same plots and characters, much as Hollywood churns out sequels and remakes of successful story lines.
In this case, the original story line has an imperious or threatening Turkish despot capturing one or more Westerners. The Westerners naturally refuse to go along with the resulting slavery or servitude offer, risk violence or death, but somehow end up more or less happily ever after when the despot turns out to have at least a little bit of a soft spot in his heart.
Each cited opera uses some of the same key characters—Zaïde in Mozart’s take vs. Zaida in Rossini, Prince Selim in Rossini’s Turk vs. Pasha Selim Bassa in Mozart’s Abduction, the overseer Osmin in both Mozart’s Abduction and Zaïde but not in Rossini. Yet the plots vary considerably.
Rossini’s opera, however, as staged in Wolf Trap’s intimate Barns through last Tuesday, has some additional baggage to deal with: the composer’s earlier and very popular L’Italiana in Algeri (The Italian Girl in Algiers) in which our spunky heroine, finding herself in extremis on Algeria’s distant shore, manages to reunite with her former lover while fleeing an Arabian harem.
Having enjoyed the social and monetary rewards of this success, Rossini returned to the same plot-well to create Turk in Italy. While not as much fun as L’Italiana, plot wise, this sequel (which actually uses different characters) is in some ways more intriguing. Its curious overture, while pure Rossini, is of a more serious character than is usually the case with this composer. And the opera itself, while lacking wall-to-wall party pieces for its singers to show off with, redeems itself with rich, brilliant, wall-to-wall ensemble numbers.
Rossini’s Turk flips the aforementioned story line on its head. Abandoning the foreign locale and the captivity motif, at least in spirit, it involves a visit to Italy by Turkish Prince Selim (Michael Sumuel) who seems to be in search of new scenery. This might include adding an exotic Western bride to spice up his stable back home. He soon fixes his attentions on sprightly bad girl Fiorilla (Angela Mannino) who, inconveniently for them both, happens to already be married to the hapless Geronio (Michael Anthony McGee), an even wimpier husband/lover than Carmen’s Don José if that’s possible.
In fact, Fiorilla’s so bad that she’s already carrying on with the aptly named Narciso, the handsome stud who’s already cuckolded Geranio before the opera begins. So she and Selim have to chuck these two guys to find true happiness—and would do so, except…drat! Selim runs into gypsy girl Zaida (Catherine Martin) who’d once become his affianced back home in Turkey. Since Selim’s not exactly impoverished or unattractive, Zaida works on getting him back, aided by the rest of the gypsies and her old friend Albazar (Nathaniel Peake), once Selim’s trusted counselor (as was the parallel Allazim in Zaïde.)
No point in relating more. The plot is actually a mess, though an intentional one. That’s because it isn’t really a plot. In a sort of 19th century anticipation of Luigi Pirandello’s 20th century absurdist drama Six Characters in Search of an Author, the entirety of Rossini’s Turk is actually sprouting from the mind of poet-librettist Prosdocimo (Chad Sloan) who’s trying to write a new stage work, reorganizing his “plot” as the characters develop.
In the end, as in almost all comic operas, the plot is merely a device to hold our interest while we listen to roughly three hours of Rossini’s enjoyably entertaining music.
Director Gregory Keller, fortunately, took a much lighter touch with his material here than did James Marvel last month in his notably unpleasant reading of Mozart’s Zaïde. Certainly, in the early going, the imperious Selim isn’t beneath brandishing threats to back off his rivals. But they eventually ring hollow, like Moe’s threats to Curly. So we’re confident that somehow things will work out in the end.
Throughout the evening, Keller keeps his singers forward where they can be heard. And his stage action and sense of character development keeps the audience interested even though Rossini himself left a few dull spots in the opera.
Speaking of characters, three hat-tips to bass Michael Anthony McGee for his moping, hangdog Geronio. With his slouched, sagging body language radiating permanent defeat, we should dislike this character, perhaps with a knowing sneer for good measure.
But physically and vocally, McGee added a kind of well-meaning pathos and gentleness to his character, permitting us to see him less as a gutless wonder and more as a normal guy who simply cannot fathom the unbridled sluttiness of his wife. McGee’s voice was strong, but he fuzzes it around the edges to better suit his character. It was a masterful, endearing performance, and added considerable interest to the evening.
As the over-the-top libertine Fiorilla, Angela Mannino got to strut most of Rossini’s showiest material. She made the most of her opportunities, expressing herself in a light yet elegant soprano that articulated her imperiousness and disdain toward the male animal with a light, ironic touch.
Having sung the smaller role of Osmin in Zaïde, bass Michael Sumuel got a chance to stretch out here in the pivotal role of Selim. His is a broad, friendly, yet pinpoint-accurate instrument, capable of many nuances and approaches. He got the comic touches right here. And, with McGee as his periodic foil, injected a considerable amount of welcome energy into Tuesday evening’s performance.
In the smaller roles of Albazar and Zaida, tenor Nathaniel Peake and mezzo-soprano Catherine Martin carried Rossini’s somewhat exotic gypsy side-plot with ease, and worked well with the production’s vigorous gypsy chorus.
Some of the best music of this opera is given to the other relatively minor character of Narciso, the hunky lover who discovers Geronio isn’t the only dude who’s sprouting horns, courtesy of Fiorilla. Tenor David Portillo handled the role with appropriate swagger tinged with confusion. Narciso’s also given some of Rossini’s most beautiful and challenging bel canto solos in this opera. Portillo handled it effortlessly, his performance highlighted by impeccable diction and almost dreamy legato. It would be a delight to hear him some day in his own bel canto-centric recital.
Putting it all together in this production was baritone Chad Sloan, whose Prosdocimo is busy creating all these characters as the opera proceeds. He’s a supple, natural singer, although his role is somewhat prosaic here, as befits the narrative he’s putting in place. Wittily stepping out of the action, and then re-entering to quarrel with his own characters, Sloan’s primary role—wittily realized during Tuesday’s performance—is to keep things moving, and make his characters interact in meaningful ways.
Upon reflection, Prosdocimo is actually the only “real” character in the show. Everyone else is a figure of his imagination. Yet the seeming effortlessness of Sloan’s acting chops made everything seem reassuringly normal, even if it wasn’t.
Adding a bit of visual piquancy to his character as well as to Wolf Trap’s contemporary update of this opera, was Sloan’s amusingly accurate Blues Brothers garb—courtesy of costume designer Alejo Vietti. Sloan’s initial appearance instantly and appropriately set a jolly mood of recognizable absurdity. Jake Blues (John Belushi in the 1980 “Blues Brothers” film) would have felt right at home in Rossini’s wide-ranging and messy chaos.
Wolf Trap’s pit orchestra played professionally and well under the baton of Eric Melear. And Erhard Rom’s unfussy, sky-blue, bucolic seaside scene set lent the Barns a welcome, summery atmosphere to the show and to its nutty characters.
Rating: *** (Three stars.)
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