The Turk in Italy review (Sydney Opera House)

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It’s surely the most fun you can have in a tux.The Turk in Italy, with a score by Rossini, direction by Simon Phillips, is as sensational onstage as it is on paper. Phillips’ rigorously comedic adaptation has taken every conceivable opportunity for nuance. For example, for the first act, a large, black bra hangs from the quintessentially fifties sign that reads Bar Geronio; a focal point, set-wise, for the entire production (the bar, that is, not the bra). It (the bra, not the bar) is indicative of the extramarital romantic high jinks that inform so much of the plot.
The two-storey bar that greets the audience as they walk into the theatre is a cartooned triumph somewhere between the aesthetic fabric of The Jetsons, Happy Days and the Italian Riviera. Its name is spelt out in white script that looks like it might’ve come from Mr Whippy. Again, the obscene innuendo seems pointed, given there’s no holding back from such overt carry-on in the scenario itself.
Designer Gabriela Tylesova has outdone herself and is as much a star of this brand spanking, shiny new production as Emma Matthews, or anyone else. Her palette is pizza and gelato; her inspirations, the era itself. We’re talking uncompromising eccentricity and splendiferous colour. This is a show for those who remember caffettiera napoletana; those who hunger for rustic, blistered, woodfired margheritas; whose taste in automobiles runs to something like a Lancia Aurelia Spider, in women, to Sophia Loren, or men, Mario Lanza. The visual feast is underpinned by the presence of the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra conducted lovingly by the fine-fingered, balletic hands of Andrea Molino.
One of the most charming aspects of the work is that librettist, Felice Romani takes the audience fully into the writer’s confidence: we are along for the ride, getting the inside story, from the first, thanks to the presence of Prosdocimo, a poet and playwright forced to eke out a living as a barman. Speaking of Prosdocimo, Samuel Dundas plays him wonderfully: not only singing with confident, consistent aplomb but using his considerable comedic capacities.
Finally, to take the tiramisu, this is the only opera that has countless Elvis and Marilyn impersonators and even interpolates Love Me Tender into the score. One of the Elvises sings into a mop; it’s the first time I’ve seen singers rock ‘n’ rolling to Rossini. It’s bound to knock any remaining stuffy out of opera. It takes high brow, makes it low brow and raises an eyebrow.
The chorus is fine voice and though, in one early scene, they looked a little sheepish about their comic roles, the buffoonery soon enough seemed second nature to them. We’re reminded of the diversity of our species as the males parade in swimsuits, hirsute or not, potbellied or nay, pale or swarthier. Both genders are mercilessly and even-handedly mocked, according to stereotypical foibles. For example, the supposedly mechanically-minded men struggle to setup deckchairs for their lovelies; reference is made to the transcendent importance of shopping as the God-given birthright of women.
Phillips has transformed Romani’s already ticklish libretto in a manner that seems to channel an updated C. J. Dennis, to take in vernacular like “root rat” and “what the fuck?”. It sounds crass as, but in context it’s hilarious. The counterpoint between Rossini’s sophisticated score and the earthiness of the adaptation makes it all the funnier. How often do you see laugh-out-loud opera?
Luciano Botelho has a tenor that’s almost diaphanous, in the best possible way, at times. It’s a thing of delicate beauty. Early on, his character (ladies’ man, Narciso) seemed a little toned-down as against the others, but he came into his own later, while changing costume in a tiny, askew beach pavilion.
Conal Coad is much-loved and it’s easy to see why. He has a face for comedy: pliable and infinitely expressive, in the way of a Rowan Atkinson. And he’s something of an Oliver Hardy, of course, in, er, stature, which doesn’t hurt. Beyond that, he’s a consummately charismatic comedian, with a commanding baritone that sometimes suffers from hoarseness and a lack of musicality; occasional flaws are more than compensated by theatricality. Geronio is easy to laugh at but equally able to engender our sympathies in a “come here, you big bear!” kind of way.
The fact is, the cast is so good, it’s almost folly to play favourites. Coad has his fan club. Emma Matthews, playing-up as Geronio’s rapacious, unfaithful wife, Fiorilla, rightly has her’s. Despite a couple of dangerous moments grappling with extraordinarily demanding passages, she hits the mark with her impeccably transparent diction. There’s no doubt about it: she’s a thrilling singer, who seems to surpass herself with every new production and performance. She certainly relishes and toys with the role of voracious vamp.
Paolo Bordogna, as Selim, the slimy Turk come to town, might be diminutive, but his baritone bowls you over and almost shakes the foundations. Better yet, he’s genuinely hilarious: combing his chest hair for an imminent tete a tete, or surreptitiously sliding his hands towards Fiorilla’s ample bosom. These are, I suppose, comic inventions by Phillips, as are vocal flourishes timed to coincide with mock-orgasmic moments, but it takes very good actors to bring them off.
Not as large as these characters, but a fine performer nonetheless, is Anna Dowsley, as Zaida, the jilted gypsy girl. Fine-boned and featured, Dowsley draws you in with her pristine and powerful mezzo. This is a voice to be reckoned with and that she’s so surefooted in all departments in her OA debut is an immense feather for her cap.
As you can tell, Phillips suspends political correctness (there are pejorative references to dagos and doner kebabs), but it’s all very good-natured, historically accurate and, if anything, forces us to split seconds of critical examination of our propensities to stereotype race, colour, creed, nationality, gender and more.
Il Turco In Italia, Aussie-style, Phillips-style, is The Marx Brothers meet Aunty Jack; Wogs Out of Work meets Bazza Mackenzie. It’s as colourful, characterful and enjoyable as new vaudeville ought to be. And opera. More please, OA.
Read our interview with designer Gabriela Tylesova
[box]The Turk in Italy is at the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House until 12 February. Tickets are available at[/box]

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