Andrew's Opera was previously published at

04 February, 2014

'Turco in Italia' at the Sydney Opera House.

The Turk in Italy - Rossini - Sydney Opera House.  Wed 22nd January 2014

Sydney opera fans should not miss this rare outing of a minor Rossini gem.  Il Turco in Italia was mounted for Callas, Sills, Caballe and Bartoli but has never entered the general repertoire.  This ‘Turco’ is a fun romp for audience and artists alike however putting opera singers into swimsuits can have its down-side too (see below). 

Turco is probably avoided by opera companies because of serious competition, especially Rossinis own manifold works. Turco is thirteenth of his forty operas and came on the heels of the very successful LItaliana in Algeria. Yet despite much early acclaim for these works, only Barber of Seville remained in the repertory until the 1950s. 

It is said that Rossini was sitting up in his bed composing and a page of his music dropped to the floor.  Rather than going to the trouble of retrieving it, the story goes that he stayed in his bed and just wrote another page of new music to replace it.  And so flowed the melodies in Il Turco in Italia the listener will have to decide how these tunes compare with La Cenerentola, Semiramide or Il Barbiere di Siviglia.  There is a charming sextet to end the first act.  One of the male arias seems to have been borrowed from the Barber of Seville or maybe it was the other way around. 

The overture is a glorious and memorable piece of novel orchestration, full of melodic invention, rhythm and style.  Yet the production took attention away from this concert masterpiece by presenting a plethora of beach-bum fuss on stage, a comedy routine which led to applause and laughter interrupting the music.  This magnificent sinfonia should have been showcased maybe even played again (‘Sam’) for the second act!  The work is long, however, and if Die Zauberflaute warranted editing so too might Turco. 

The translation was very loose, often slap-stick and frankly crude at times.  The laughs sometimes came before the actual gags due to the titles being visible … but this comes with the territory and nobody would want to return to the pre-titles days. 

In his operas Rossini uses various tricks such as a tapping baton, rolling R concerted ending and in this opera we have a narrator, Prosdocimo, who is writing a play and using the operas events as inspiration (or plagiarism).  And the playwright here is Samuel Dundas, using great flair and energy.  And he doubles as barman, sommelier and waiter. 

Emma Matthews was the star and one can see why other divas have moved to bring this work out of its long obscurity.  Ms Matthews does the coquettish thing as Fiorilla and flies into the coloratura stratosphere regularly both on her own and in concert. 

Contrary to Turkish mores this production takes place at Geronios cocktail bar on a southern Italian beach resort.  Just about everything that could happen at such a bar does happen.  Wooing and surrender, jealous fights, undressing, mistaken identities, etc.  There is even a kitchen blender, perhaps for Halal fruit cocktails - as well as to shred banknotes offered by the Turk to Geronio to purchase his young wife.  The Geronio couple live upstairs, glamorous Fiorilla (Emma Matthews) with her older portly husband, ably played by Conal Coad.  The latter is a fine singer but is perhaps over-exposed in Sydney of late.  Lover-boy Turk Selim Pasha is played by Italian Paolo Bordogna who is yet another bass-baritone who is more baritone than bass - but more than adequate for the part.  His devilish sexy persona would be at home on Broadway as it is in the opera theatre. 

As the paramour muse Narciso we heard Brasilian tenor Luciano Botelho.  He sang with accuracy and poise, having a natural ‘dry’ tenor voice, hitting some risky high notes, most of which paid off.  The opera had a great deal of dressing and undressing on stage, including a hilarious aria by Narciso sung in a beach changing box as he morphed into a Memphis man (see below). 

Zaida is played by Anna Dowsley, a capable young Australia mezzo-soprano.  She is not (?yet) ideal for the role which needs a more mature mezzo voice to contrast with Emma Matthews as well as to be a believable partner to a Pasha. 

Breaking with operatic tradition, most of the cast was chosen for appearances first and voice second.  There were only two singers of a certain imposing stature in this show, one a male principal singer, the other a Rubenesque chorus member (at the bar and not in swimming costume).  Experience tells us that larger singers often have the better voices, so where does that leave the listener?  Frustratingly we may have been deprived of what the opera audience craves most: big beautiful vocalism, for the sake of a director‘s peccadillo.  One of the best singers of our day, Stephanie Blythe, would have been eliminated on this basis.  Yet wherever she sings the house is usually sold out as she delights audiences at the Met and elsewhere. 

The Turco denouement has the characters dressing up for a masked ball in which the lovers are meant to catch each other out.  Starting with Narciso in the bathing shed, all the men dress as Elvis Presley while the ladies wear Marilyn Monroe get-ups to the enormous mirth of the audience.  Conal Coad posed as Selim Pasha despite being double the girth of his Eastern rival!  But this IS opera, after all!  Crazy stories, fat ladies singing into the night, etcetera. 

This brought us to the vocal high point of the evening, a magnificent performance by Ms Matthews who reads a divorce letter from Geronio and then laments her ostracism (premature as it happens) from the society of her husband and the world she is used to … while the other lovers reunited, prepare to sail back to Turkey.  In her five-minute solo, Ms Matthews accuracy and control were sublime, and at the excited response from the audience well justified.  The fact that she sang this only two nights before (Wednesday then Friday) makes the feat all the more impressive.  However, it does not do the management much credit, since the vocal cords of a singer are like the feet of a marathon runner and they need more than one day to recover after use.  And it is upon those cords that the opera company and this opera’s success or otherwise depends. 

While I am pleased to have seen it, Turco pales next to William Tell or Semiramide.  Nevertheless, the Sydney audience gave an enormous ovation to the well rehearsed curtain call à la Broadway.  The company might have done a greater opera with a similar cast, yet I confess such comparisons are risky.  Let the reader judge, hopefully after hearing the whole opera, whether it was worth the effort. 

The evening had not one but two patrons being our state AND federal vice regal representatives, plus an extraordinary array of VIPs, lawyers, medical people, business folk, etc.  I spoke so some subscribers who were surprised to learn that their tickets were for opening night.  Such seats used to be unobtainable without a long wait and/or a large donation to the company.  But the companys subscriptions have dwindled from about fifteen operas to less than ten and lots of performances of musical comedies which are now the companys stock in trade rather than grand opera.  But I go on.  At least we still HAVE an opera company, even if much of what it does is ABC (Aida, Boheme and Carmen). 

Comments by Andrew Byrne