(Credit: Alain Hanel)
The new production of Rossini’s “Il Turco in Italia” at the Monte-Carlo Opera was a symbolic bridge between the present and the future of this illustrious opera. The production’s director was Jean-Louis Grinda, who for fifteen years has also been director of the Monte-Carlo Opera, while the prima donna of the show was none other than Cecilia Bartoli, who will succeed Grinda at the direction in January 2023. The production marks the first time that Grinda and Bartoli have collaborated on an opera, and the result is sensational.
Grinda’s direction focused on poet Prosdocimo, (baritone Giovanni Romeo), who is struggling to come up with a plot for his next libretto, so he looks around for inspiration. At first, an oddly matched couple captures his attention. The clumsy, old and wealthy Don Geronio, (baritone Nicola Alaimo), is tormented by his coquettish and fickle wife Donna Fiorilla, (Bartoli), who surrounds herself with admirers and proclaims the delights of free love.
It would seem that today the most radical and daring idea that a director can imagine would be to let an overture play in front of a dark and silent house, the curtain down. Has the human attention span diminished so much that the audience can no longer listen intently to the orchestra for five minutes, generating a sense of expectation for what is to come? Grinda’s production of “Il Turco in Italia” was no exception to this trend. Shortly after the opening begins, the scene is buzzing with mimed action, during which the poet invites the lead couple to a screening of a silent film they have made, in which the couple are presented as comic actors fighting at table. This hilarious film provides context for the marital tensions between the strong-willed Fiorilla and the exasperated Geroni and sets the stage for the production’s unabashed comedic tone.
In the first scene, on the seafront of Naples, Geronio is at the end of his tether because of his wife’s whims. He consults a gypsy fortune teller, Zaida, (mezzo-soprano Josè Maria Lo Monaco), accompanied by the poet. The latter discovers that Zaida could be a useful addition to his plot because she too has her share of marital problems. She is not really a gypsy, but the unjustly rejected favorite of a Turkish pasha, who now threatens to kill her out of jealousy. Thereupon, the Turkish Selim himself, (bass Adrian Sâmpetrean), arrives on a boat, but barely has he set foot on land when Fiorilla, who is passing by, charms him.
The poet, delighted with this turn of events, hopes he has found the perfect way to complicate his plot, which he helps by negotiating with the characters on the sequel. He is assisted in this task by Albazar, played by the tenor Filippo Adami, who has gone from his initial role as Zaida’s Turkish protector to that of the poet’s assistant.
“Che bel canto! Che presence!”
What was most impressive about Bartoli’s approach to the role of Fiorilla was the infinite variety of vocal colors she possesses in all registers, and her willingness to take risks with dynamic nuances, like letting the notes emerge. the highest pitches of a phrase with a seemingly effortless pianissimo. . We don’t want to lose sight of Bartoli’s bountiful gift for coloratura fireworks, which she willingly deployed in arias such as “Non si dà follia maggiore (There is no greater madness) in the first act. His ability to infuse phrases with bubbly energy is unmatched, and his effervescent repetition of the lines “Con marito di tal fatta ecco qui come si fa (With a husband made like this, here’s what you must do)” was unforgettable. Along with her boundless energy and abundant vocal technique, Bartoli’s acting skills allowed her to give the character compelling depth. Fiorilla’s Act 2 aria “Se lo zefiro si posa (If the zephyr rests)” was both humorous and moving, and its declamatory reading of Geronio’s farewell letter was heartfelt.
Opera characters often express precisely what the audience is thinking. In act one, scene three, after hearing Fiorilla sing, Selim exclaims enthusiastically, “Che bel canto! che presence! (What a beautiful song! What a presence!). We felt the collective consent of the spectators also under the spell of Bartoli’s talents. However, although she was clearly the star of the show, Bartoli did not dominate the production. The overall effect was more of a group effort performed by a cohesive cast who enjoyed singing and performing together, making for a very enjoyable performance.
Nicola Alaimo was wonderfully touching and comical as Geronio. His buffa pater singing was a little rushed and imprecise at first, but became clearer as the performance progressed, demonstrating that what is paramount in the rapid execution of Rossini’s syllabic writing is not so much speed but rhythmic clarity. The entire cast excelled in these moments of patter, which must have been difficult to coordinate, as the singers who engaged in these quick exchanges often found themselves on opposite sides of the stage, climbing a ladder or singing atop a raised platform.
Bass Ildar Abdrazakov, initially chosen for the role of Selim, had to cancel his appearance for family reasons and was replaced by Adrian Sâmpetrean. The imperturbable Sâmpetrean was a nice foil for the more energetic Bartoli and the fun Alaimo. His contributions to ensemble numbers have been solid, the most memorable being his Act Two duet with Geronio, “D’un bell’uso di Turchia (From a beautiful Turkish custom)”, in which he offers to buy Fiorilla at her husband.
For several moments in the performance, English lyric tenor Barry Banks kept the house laughing with his witty rendition of Don Narciso. His act two aria “Tu seconda il mio disegno (Sweet love continue my plan)”, sung after hearing Selim maneuvering to flee with Fiorilla, was a delight from start to finish, expressing both the Narciso’s madness and his determination to win back his love. .
The production could not escape the many changes brought about by the whimsical decisions of the internationally renowned casting director named Omicron. Just before opening night, Filippo Adami replaced tenor David Astorga as Albazar, while bass-baritone Giovanni Romeo ably sang the assistant.
Exceptional performance in the pit
The conductor Gianluca Capuano encouraged the lively playing of the members of the Musiciens du Prince-Monaco. Rossini’s music calls for virtuoso wind playing, and the performance featured superb contributions from oboist Pier Luigi Fabretti and trumpeter Thibaud Robinne. The most difficult and outstanding solos, however, were those for the natural horn in the opening, beautifully performed by Ulrich Hübner. Too bad then that the accompanying figures on the strings masked his virtuosity.
Perhaps Capuano’s only weakness was his reluctance to demand from his instrumentalists the kind of soft playing that vocal soloists use quite freely and to great effect. Rossini’s famous crescendos, for example, invariably began with mezzo-forte dynamics, leaving little room to build to an exciting climax. Certainly, other conductors often exaggerate these crescendos, but minimizing them is a less than satisfactory alternative, especially for Capuano and his orchestra, who have made a specialty of Rossini’s operas in recent years.
Pianofortist Luca Quintavalle, who entertained the audience by freely improvising a continuous musical commentary on the text at key moments, accompanied the recitatives. At the first mention of the Turkish prince Selim, he played the first eight bars of the overture to Mozart’s “Abduction from the Seraglio”. In the first act, scene two, when Fiorilla asks Selim: “Quante gives amaste? Quante vorreste averne? (How many women have you loved, how many would you like to have?), “he shyly sounded the beginning of the mandolin introduction to the serenade of Don Giovanni” Deh, vieni alla finestra. And as the curtain rises in the second act, he mischievously performs the overture to Mozart’s Rondo alla Turca from his Sonata No. 11. These references recall the shadow cast by Mozart’s works on the European opera scene at the time of Rossini. Rossini himself parodies the music for the Commendatore’s entry in “Don Giovanni“, to masterful comic effect when the Turkish ship arrives off Naples in “Il Turco in Italia”
Thanks to the impeccable direction of the singer-actors of Grinda, the plot moves forward with great animation, but the music has always remained center stage. Grinda doesn’t expend energy on arcane interpretations or updating the plot. Instead, he creates characters that, despite their stereotypical portrayal, remain touching and likable. A treadmill used to transport the characters on and off stage proved to be an effective comedic device, and the use of an extra stretch of stage, extending in front of the orchestra, brought the singers even closer to the audience. .
Rudy Sabounghi’s sets are simple curtains onto which sets are projected. These include the interior of Geronio’s house and Fiorillas and the erupting Vesuvius seen from the beach are visually stunning. Laurent Castaingt’s lighting is atmospheric, evoking a charming Naples at nightfall. Gorgeous Belle Époque-inspired costumes by Jorge Jara contributed to the character portraits.
This summer, the Grinda/Bartoli “Il Turco in Italia” will visit the Wiener Staatsoper, accompanied by a performance of “La Cenerentola” by Rossini, also featuring Bartoli and the orchestra of period instruments, Les Musiciens du Prince -Monaco, of which she is the founder and artistic director.