Apr 7, 2008

Il Turco in Italia, poco fa

Il Turco in Italia 

Drama buffo in due atti di Gioacchino Rossini (1814)
Libretto Felice Romani (in Italian, here)

Théâtre du Capitole, Toulouse
Sunday, April 6, 2008 (last performance)
Maurizio Benini conducting
Tobias Richter directing
Marco Vinco - Selim
Inga Kalna - Fiorella
Alberto Rinaldi - Don Geronio
Lawrence Brownlee - Narciso
Brigitte Hool - Zaïda
Philippe Do - Albazar
Pietro Spagnoli - Prosdocimo (poeta)

Coproduction with the Lausanne Opera (performances in Sept/Oct 2006) and the Deutsche Oper Am Rhein (premiere on June 14).

" Un sot qui voit des esclaves nègres pour la première fois s'imagine que tous se ressemblent; les jolis airs de Rossini sont des nègres pour les sots."
Stendhal, Vie de Rossini

Did I made it all the way to Toulouse (originally a 4-hr train travel which turned out to be a 5-hr ride - sabotage seems to have become the new national sport these days*) to attend this Turco in Italia? Of course I didn't, silly you. I just happened to be in the neighborhood, making it very unethical not to see Maurizio Benini conducting and the direction of Tobias Richter.

Staging this Rossini's opera is nothing short of climbing the Mont Blanc (or in my case, just the staircase of my building). The problems here are:
1. producing a performance for grown-ups (not in a vaudeville-for-dummies kind of way)
2. overcoming the dull yet intricate libretto
3. preventing the audience from the boredom that is always just around the corner, musically speaking
4. casting good enough singers that are also believable comedians.

All in all, reasons for failure are everywhere, while success seems almost unreachable. Nicolas Joël, whose era in Toulouse is almost over (leaving to head the Paris Opera for his first season in 2009-2010), managed to secure Maurizio Benini in the pit, thus instantly preventing a musical disaster.

But what can a world-class conductor do with a 3rd-string orchestra? (I am not gratuitously mean here; when Joël took charge of the Théâtre du Capitole a few years back, the house had sunk so low the orchestra was all amateur).

Well, Maurizio Benini did marvels.
The performance of the orchestra under his conduction was light-years ahead of the current quality anywhere in France (Paris included)(or even La Scala, where things are really messy now).  

Tobias Richter (first season as head of the Grand Théâtre de Genève also in 2009-2010) took on the challenge to direct Il Turco.
When I found out he had chosen to transport the action in the 1950s, I thought to myself: not again! (it has been the basic dogma of every Rossinian production in France for the last few years).
Yet, Richter added many personal touches that resonated with my grown-up side, very meaningful, yet very subtle details.
I loved the two black bodyguards of Sultan Selim (black for Moors, obviously) in white costumes who then were dressed up in black with white masques on for the Ballo in Maschera scene in act 2. The posters hung at the rear of the stage at the end of act 2 when the zingarella Zaïda is leaving with Selim where also a noticeable idea, though I suspect foreigners (such as the numerous Spanish audience) didn't get it: after all, you'd have to understand the French word "Gitanes", know it's a very well-established cigarettes brand and get that the posters were an almost perfect reproduction of the iconography of the brand. Subtle sure, but also very powerful and cohesive with the Zaïda of Richter, somehow more corrosive and poisonous than simply naive and innocent as portrayed in the libretto.

See the Gitanes posters at the rear of the stage, on the right? Of course you can. Look harder. 

On the comic side, Richter was also very enjoyable, mixing obvious tricks with yet again many successful details; my favorite ones include the use of the orchestra to shout out another "ha ha" at some point in the second act, as well as an added replica by the barman when called on by the poet under his name Orazio (Act 1, scene 14, recitativo); he replied, irritated, "Mon nom, c'est Hervé!" (considering the first name of the actor was actually Hervé, I'm wondering if the replica had anything to do with a deliberate choice to use this particular first name (categorized as redneck in the French culture).

Anyway, Richter gave a memorable interpretation of this piece, and used the whole space of this small stage to perfection (something pretty uncommon in opera). He was well-served by a good acting cast, except for Marco Vinco (Selim) who has to understand there's a fine line between funny and ridicule that should never be crossed (his singing was excellent though).

From left to right: Pietro Spagnoli, Alberto Rinaldi, Brigitte Hool, Marco Vinco, Maurizio Benini, Inga Kalna, L. Bronwlee, Philippe Do

Pietro Spagnoli (the poet) who has virtually no aria but appears in many recitatives (and otherwise acts as the messenger figure in the story) was by far the most impressive comedian. He gave an intoxicating performance. As for the singing, the weakest elements were undoubtedly the two tenors. Both were mediocre in the middle register, and both were disastrous in the high notes. Fortunately, Philippe Do (Albazar) had only a couple to attempt (and fail).
As for the only non-European cast member, American tenor Lawrence Brownlee (Narciso), here a a few things he should really be concerned with (and work on):
1. his high-notes (the high Cs were horrendous)
2. his timbre (or maybe he just had a cold, but I seriously doubt it)
3. his nuances (nothing there but loud, and yet still inaudible over the orchestra)
4. his stage presence (non existing)
5. his weight (this is just US atavism I suppose).
The program states that his repertoire includes Nadir (and there is only one Nadir in opera, the lead role of Les Pêcheurs de Perles); not to be over-sarcastic, but he has neither the voice nor the charisma to make anything but a fool of himself in that part. So may Lawrence Brownlee happily return to his US engagements and leave us Europeans alone.

No successful Rossini production can ever occur without a prominent baritone buffo (in this case, the old, weak and coward husband Don Geronio). Alberto Rinaldi was unarguably phenomenal in both compartments (acting and singing).
He's obviously Italian, which is of the utmost importance to sing that kind of part, because the diction of a non-Italian native is never precise enough to cope with the speediest bars (Peter Mattei comes in mind to illustrate this; as Figaro in Il Barbiere di Siviglia at the MET a few years back, he ended up singing probably no more than half of the notes of those bars in arias such as "Largo al Factotum").

Finally a few words about Inga Kalna (Fiorella): hilarious, vocally spot on but fading by the middle of act 2. I'm so glad circumstances allowed me not to skip this performance, which was overall one of the best I've seen in recent years; not very difficult you may add, considering I haven't been travelling much lately; furthermore here in Lyon, it's either a brilliant direction (Lehnhoff's Lohengrin) or a good cast (Swenson's Maria Stuarda) these days (or neither). And things won't be evolving anytime soon, as long as Serge Dorny will be in charge (more on that tomorrow after the evening to introduce the 2008-09 season).

* since France sucks at soccer, rugby and all other major sports

Many more photographs of the production here.

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