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Six Characters in Search of an Author

Teatro Real
05/31/2023 -  & June 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 9,11, 12*, 2023
Gioacchino Rossini : Il turco in Italia
Alex Esposito*/Adrian Sâmpetrean (Selim), Lisette Oropesa*/Sara Blanch/Sabina Puértolas (Fiorilla), Misha Kiria*/ Pietro Spagnoli (Don Geronio), Edgardo Rocha*/Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani (Don Narciso), Florian Sempey*/Mattia Olivieri (Prosdocimo), Paola Gardina*/Chiara Amarù (Zaida), Pablo García‑López (Albazar)
Coro Titular del Teatro Real (Coro Intermezzo), Andrés Máspero (chorus master), Orquesta Titular del Teatro Real (Orquesta Sinfónica de Madrid), Giacomo Sagripanti (pianoforte, conductor)
Laurent Pelly (stage director), Chantal Thomas (sets), Joël Adam (lighting)

E. Rocha, M. Kiria, A. Esposito, L. Oropesa
(© Javier del Real/Teatro Real)

Like much of Rossini’s œuvre, Il turco in Italia, an immense masterpiece ahead of its time, is underrated and misconceived. Often seen as a mirror image of its lighthearted precursor L’italiana in Algeri, it only shares the cross‑cultural interaction between East and West, albeit more sophisticatedly. Rossini’s comedies are unjustly perceived as a silly pêle‑mêle of joyous melodies and hilarious imbroglios. The often crude stage productions and their tendency to exaggerate comedic moments in favour of slapstick prevent certain works from being more fully appreciated.

Il turco in Italia (1814) was the second collaboration between Rossini and poet‑librettist Felice Romani. They had collaborated one year earlier for Aureliano in Palmira (1813) and would collaborate five years later for Bianca e Fernando (1819). Romani is the author of some one hundred libretti, including most of Bellini’s works and several operas by Donizetti, Meyerbeer, Mercadante, Pacini and several other composers. Given this fecundity, his libretti are often overlooked. However, he was both a talented poet and a man of the theatre. The subtle libretto of Il turco in Italia contains the prototype of no less than Luigi Pirandello’s monumental play Sei personaggi in cerca d’un autore (Six Characters in Search of an Author, 1921).

The opera’s elaborate plot revolves around Fiorilla, a bored housewife in search of adventure. Her husband is the dull and foolish Geronio. The choice of name implies he’s significantly older (the root γέρων or geron is “old” in Greek). The neighbour Prosdocimo is a poet in search of inspiration, hoping to find characters and situations to inspire future work. Geronio is constantly in search of fortune tellers to tell his future. He finds Zaida, a gypsy fortune teller who is in fact a Turkish concubine of Prince Selim’s. Falsely accused of infidelity by rivals in the Harem, she escaped to Naples. Fortuitously, Prince Selim’s ship sailed into the harbour just as the Turkish Prince was visiting Naples in order to learn Italian manners. He met Fiorilla and it was mutual infatuation. To add to the intrigue, Narcisso, either an unsuccessful suitor or a jilted lover of Fiorilla’s, follows, consumed with rage, the Turk courting Fiorilla.

In addition to an outstanding cast, this production is an unqualified success thanks to French stage director Laurent Pelly’s ingenious idea of transporting the proceedings to the Naples of the early 1960s, an epoch of post‑war reconstruction and hope. He uses magnified pages of fotonovelas (photo romances), which originated in Italy, as sets. Bored housewives and eager factory girls devoured such fluff as an escape from life’s dreariness. Prince Selim jumps out of a page of a fotonovela which serves as a stylized ship (think Jeff Daniels walking out of the screen into Mia Farrow’s living room in Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo).

Fiorilla invites Selim to coffee at her home. They’re surprised by both her husband and her spurned would‑be lover Narcisso. The latter scolds Geronio for his meekness. Selim leaves the boisterous household and agrees to meet Fiorilla at the port. Instead, Selim meets Zaida whom he doesn’t initially recognize. The old lovers reconcile but Fiorilla fights with Zaida over Selim. In a clin d’œil to the late French stage director Jean‑Pierre Ponnelle (1932‑1988), Pelly superimposes huge frames over the individual characters as well as over several others at moments of intense drama.

The second act opens at a local inn, where Selim unsuccessfully offers to buy Fiorilla from Geronio. Fiorilla has arranged to have Zaida come to her tryst with Selim to force the latter to choose, but the Turk hesitates. A masked ball ensues where both Geronio and Narcisso dress up as the Turk and Zaida impersonates Fiorilla in an attempt to thwart the elopement of the two lovers. The ball ends in a big fracas. The poet Prosdocimo convinces Geronia to send Fiorilla packing as a maneuver to win her back. At the end of the opera, Selim and Zaida sail back to Turkey, Fiorilla and Geronio are reconciled. Narcisso promises to mend his ways, and the poet continues to search for inspiration.

Soubrette par excellence, Lisette Oropesa was the ideal Fiorilla, exuding charm and coquettishness, thrilling with both her brilliant high notes as well as her acting skills. She brought the house down in her Act I aria, “Non si da’ follia maggior.” In the hands of Laurent Pelly, Fiorilla is no nymphomaniac but a bored and capricious woman who dreams of adventure. This was the intention in Romani’s libretto, which revealed her humanity and vulnerability in passages where she reflects on the shame of returning to her parents, the loss of her husband and her honour. In her Act II scene “Si, m’è forza partir,” she was as emotionally affecting as she was fickle in Act I.

Bass‑baritone Alex Esposito was a charismatic Selim with a huge stage presence. His bombastic gestures were rendered appealing rather than irritating thanks to his self‑deprecation. His diction was clear, and his rich, deep bass was fitting for a dashing romantic hero. His rendition of his opening aria “Bell’Italia alfin ti miro” was full of charm.

Georgian bass Misha Kiria was a phenomenal Geronio, endowed with splendid comedic verve. His ductile voice was distinct from the other two lower voices, and his Italian diction astounding. To enunciate perfectly his high speed Rossinian lines, to make them comprehensible, all the while acting with nuance and conviction, is a prodigious feat indeed.

Baritone Florian Sempey was a luxury in the role of the poet Prosdocimo. Though not a very demanding vocal part, his is the central character tying the action together, a puppeteer pulling the strings. This poet’s creation is not a new poem or play but rather the easing of the action in a thrilling adventure, ensuring that all ends well. Pelly’s choice to make Prosdocimo shabby and hapless added to the comedy and the fluidity of the action.

Paola Gardina, as Zaida, made her usually secondary role come to life to the extent that, despite the relatively modest vocal demands of the role, she stood out as a plausible rival to Fiorilla. This had a major impact, as it afforded a true equilibrium between the opera’s characters. Pelly’s conception of Zaida as a strong woman, rather than the stereotypical orientalist view, made this role almost equal to Fiorilla’s.

Uruguayan tenor Edgardo Rocha was the odd man out in the quasi‑perfect cast thanks to a nasal voice and a less than beautiful timbre, though he did manage the demanding high notes in his Act II aria “Se il mio rival.” Director Laurent Pelly chose to make this Narcisso an implausible lover, making him look like a clown with orange hair, which increased the comedic effect and made him the unsuccessful aspiring suitor rather than the jilted lover. In the small role of Albazar, tenor Pablo García‑López showed great promise with a beautiful timbre and a dashing stage presence.

It’s hard to imagine this opera as an early nineteenth century work. The frivolity of Fiorilla must have shocked at the time. The humanistic view of East‑West interaction is progressive for the epoch (and even for the present time). When Geronio salutes the departing Selim and Zaida, he says “Un saluto per dovere” (a farewell out of duty), a most surprising utterance for a cuckolded husband. In his Act I scene “Un vecchio far non può maggior follia,” Geronio lists his grievances regarding his frivolous wife and of women in general. Fiorilla, on the other hand, lists her complaints against Geronio (and indirectly the male gender) in the ensuing duet, “No, mia vita, mio tesoro.” Their Act II reconciliation scene, “Son la vite sul campo appassita,” was particularly moving as well as charming, à la Lorenzo Da Ponte at the end of Le nozze di Figaro or Così fan tutte.

This outstanding opera is a subtle study between the sexes, as well as one between East and West. Librettist Felice Romani ends these confrontations in harmony. Over a century later, one dreams of such a positive outlook.

Ossama el Naggar



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