by Charles T. Downey
For several seasons now, the Wolf Trap Opera Company has been mounting a most daring succession of operas, in many ways more interesting fare than much larger companies present. This summer is a particularly good example, with a charming production of Rossini's lesser-known Il Turco in Italia, heard at its final performance last night, sandwiched between a bizarre adaptation of Mozart's Zaide and a much anticipated staging of Britten's masterful A Midsummer Night's Dream next month (August 13 to 17).
Il Turco in Italia continues the theme of East-West interaction from Zaide, reversing the flow of immigration from Rossini's earlier comedy L'Italiana in Algeri, with Turks visiting Naples. Premiered at La Scala in 1814, it has been rare until recently: this spring Covent Garden staged it, not necessarily to good effect because of an odd production, and it is on for next season at Los Angeles Opera.
Listeners may think that they know their famous Italian operas, but as scholar Philip Gossett has shown magisterially in his Kinkeldey Award-winning book on Italian opera, Divas and Scholars: Performing Italian Opera, few areas of music history are so difficult to sort out. Gossett used an example of one of the most famous operas, Rossini's Barber of Seville, and Bartolo's aria A un Dottor della mia sorte, which early on had been eclipsed by an easier substitute aria composed by Pietro Romani, Manca un foglio, even to the point that it was being printed as "preferred" in published editions of the opera. "Thus, a change made to suit the needs of a particular singer had become writ," Gossett concludes, "[and] a 'tradition' had been born" (p. 218). Indeed, Gossett uses Turco as an example of a particularly complicated opera, because it was not only performed in multiple versions but also published in Paris in a completely different version (as Gossett points out, still being reprinted by Kalmus well into the last century!). Margaret Bent's critical edition of the score, for the Pesaro Complete Works, sorted out the many changes Rossini made during later revivals, as well as the matter of pieces in the original score not actually by Rossini (including the finale to the second act, which even in the first version Rossini took from another composer). Bent's edition was, rightly so, the score on the podium of conductor Eric Melear at Wolf Trap.
Terrible storms hit the Washington area last night, lashing my route to Wolf Trap with hurricane-like rain and making me miss the first ten minutes of the performance. That was a shame because in the middle of a rather boring typical Rossinian overture -- for how many repetitions can one stand to listen to the same harmonic progressions? -- is an unexpected, melancholy horn solo. Sad to say, from what I did hear, the orchestra in the Barns sounded a little too much like amateur hour by comparison to the polished performance of the younger musicians gathered in front of Lorin Maazel at the Castleton Festival earlier this month. Too much imprecision in the violins and horns, too many intonation problems in the winds (but a lovely trumpet solo from Chris Gekker in the second act), too much rhythmic misalignment between the stage and the pit. Part of this has to be the fault of conductor Eric Melear, but much of the performance sounded under-rehearsed and unfinished: a Rossini comic opera may appear easy on the surface but the coordination of all those bubbling lines takes discipline and rehearsal.
The vocal cast was topped by Michael Anthony McGee's Don Geronio, not only because of a suave voice (although with the worst tendency to rush) but because he created a vivid schlump of a character, a hapless husband right out of a Marx Brothers movie. Angela Mannino sang a meringue of a Fiorilla, Geronio's flirtatious wife, with flawless intonation, fairly good agility in the fioriture, and an airy tone that had none of the vocal weight familiar from earlier interpreters of the role. Michael Sumuel brought a big voice to Selim, the Turkish prince who lands in Naples, although he veered nasal at the top and was plagued by intonation problems. Catherine Martin was a fierce Zaida, and David Portillo had a smooth, incisive sound as Narciso, even hitting, mostly solidly, the outrageous high note in his big aria in the second act but opting to skip the second high note some tenors add at the end.
The production was a charming updating of Felice Romani's libretto to the 1950s Italy of Federico Fellini's movies. Turco concerns a poet struggling to find a subject for his next opera buffa, copying it eventually from the crazy events that surround him. Director Gregory Keller based his production on Fellini's iconic metafiction 8½ -- a film about a film director, Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni), struggling to make a film, made at a time when Fellini himself was struggling creatively (score by Nino Rota). The exceedingly simple set design (Erhard Rom) featured a painted backdrop with a view of Vesuvius from one of the islands in the Tyrrhenian Sea (not Fellini's Roma, which was a little jarring), complete with little lights that twinkled starlight in the night scenes, as well as two plain white archways moved into various positions, and a plaster-like reproduction of the Venus de Milo. Starlet costumes (designed by Alejo Vietti) made sense for the sexual permissiveness of the story, which meshed easily with the work of the director of La dolce vita. Keller's acting direction was particularly effective, creating memorable characters, as well as a hilarious cat-fight between the prima and seconda donne at the end of Act I and a memorable setting of the beautiful unaccompanied Quintetto of Act II. Most importantly, the director did nothing to undermine the libretto even while giving it a new twist, even playing Fiorilla's gorgeous final scena -- the one truly sad moment in the opera, as she appears truly saddened to be disgraced by the divorce Geronio pretends to be enforcing -- as sincere regret. Philip Gossett quite rightly noted that to try to play that scene comically is a mistake: "Beverly Sills, in the New York City Opera revival of 1977, sang it as if it were a facetious 'mad scene', at the end of which she threw herself on the ground, then lifted her head and winked at the audience, bringing down the house but completely falsifying the opera" (p. 219). Just so.