"Turk in Italy" at Wolf Trap
Rossini’s “The Turk in Italy” is an opera about writer’s block. Its underlying conceit is that a poet is looking for a story for an opera. He eventually finds one in the activities of his friends -- two men are in love with the same woman, who happens to be married to one of them but prefers the attentions of a visiting Turkish nobleman. It’s not a very memorable story, though, and it takes a while to get going. As the poet racks his brains for inspiration, the opera piles one entrance on top of another, over music that eagerly tries to gallop: a bunch of gypsies! A cuckolded husband! A Turkish ship laden with sailors! All of this eventually gets pureed into an opera, which is intermittently as delightful as the music indicates it is going to be, but with not a few longeurs along the way.
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None of these particular problems is the fault of the Wolf Trap Opera, which opened Gregory Keller’s production of the piece on Friday night (it repeats Sunday and Tuesday). Rossini’s operas are widely seen as ideal fare for the young voices that this company -- a summer training program for young professionals -- presents. Wolf Trap assembled a generally strong cast of adorable singers eager to do more than go through the motions. And Eric Melear conducted vividly, though there were notable problems of coordination -- which is to say that people had trouble coming in at the same time.
How do you do more than go through the motions, though, when you’re dealing with a plot that was amusingly trite in the 19th century, and is at best a relic now? Gregory Keller, the director, fell back on an all too common semaphore for hipness: sex jokes. There were a few crotch grabs too many, and at least one extraneous repeat of the boy-meets-sailor sight gag. It felt as if he couldn’t think of anything else to do; when there weren't specific gags, the performances tended to be low-key.
There were two general flaws in the singing. First, it took everyone a while to warm up and lose the first-night jitters; second, and perhaps related, there was a lack of attention to details. Angela Mannino played Fiorilla -- the hot babe everyone is in love with -- with a bright-eyed buxom mien and a voice that in its best passages had the fresh naturalness of an old-school singer. David Portillo brought very loud, ringing ardor to her lover, Narciso; Michael Anthony McGee was sweetly despairing as her weak older husband, Geronio. As Selim, the Turk of the title, Michael Sumuel upheld the good impression he made in Mozart’s “Zaide” earlier this summer, with a rich voice and a natural easy stage manner that helped him retain credibility in a role that was written with broad schtick in mind. Catherine Martin brought a startlingly big sound, a little rough around the edges, to Wolf Trap’s second Zaida of the summer; in this opera, she’s the gypsy who loved and lost Selim, and gets into catfights with Fiorilla over him. Chad Sloan was an adequate poet, slightly overdoing his addiction to the limelight. But most of them would have made a far stronger impression if they had sung more cleanly in the long passages of rapid, precise, sometimes tongue-twisting notes that are a Rossini hallmark.
The lack of dazzle among the singers was perhaps fitting in an opera that is less light-hearted than some of Rossini’s earlier comedies. The plot reflects the effort of creation; and some of the most beautiful passages are somber, like the wistful a capella quintet during the culminating comedy of identities, with three men on stage dressed as Selim and two dressed as Fiorilla, all with his or her own agenda. And the sparkle is abruptly dimmed when Fiorilla gets her comeuppance for her blatant infidelities: her final aria is one of bitter contrition rather than, as in other Rossini works (think “Cinderella”) of resolution.
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