Emma Matthews as Fionella in Opera Australia's THE TURK IN MAY. Pic Lisa Tomasetti
Emma Matthews as Fionella in Opera Australia’s THE TURK IN ITALY. Pics Lisa Tomasetti

It is hard to believe that this is the bicentenary of the first production of this work, and that it has been rarely performed.  An absolute musical and visual treat, a hilarious blaze of slapstick and colour, ‘The Turk  in Italy’ by Rossini with its original Italian libretto by Felice Romani has been spectacularly re-imagined for the 21st century by a brilliant creative team .

It is musically superb .The Australian Opera and Ballet orchestra under the wickedly delightful and exuberant conducting of maestro Andrea Molino is in fine form and the singing is fabulous.

This is one production where close attention must be paid to the very contemporary subtitles by Simon Philips (at times very witty but they can also be vulgar, but always much fun).

No choreographer is credited, but the chorus have a wonderful time in a medley of very tightly set 1960’s-ish style dances (sort of think ‘Grease’ in a way) particularly in Act 2 with the multiple Elvises and Marilyns . And the extended opening at the beach with its bathing beauties and clumsy men, all put to the overture is magnificent.

The set is very Italy 1960’s, a revolve within a revolve, featuring a red and white Cafe Geronio, and the busy kitchen and penthouse and curved grassy knolls .One can imagine that there is a Vespa just parked around the corner and Prosdocimo will bring the cocktails and expressos shortly..

Samuel Dundas as Prosdocimo , aka ‘the poet’ , in this production dressed  as a frantic waiter, seeking inspiration for his play ,is the central figure that skilfully , wittily holds the opera together in a terrific , scintillating performance as he  carefully parodies, observes and at times manipulates the goings on of the people he deals with and serves . The trio for him and Geronio and Selim, as just one example, is tremendous.

This is a seaside town in summer and as can be expected tourist foreigners arrive by the boatload. One brings a band of gypsies and circus acrobats led by swarthy, scruffy Albazar (Graeme Macfarlane), who arrive almost simultaneously as a shipload of Turks ,  their head honcho being Pasha Selim. Selim was delightfully played and tremendously sung by Paolo Bordogna who gives a fabulous performance as the somewhat ridiculous yet macho and ‘hot’ primping poseur channelling at first The Artist Formerly Known as Prince and then Elvis who tries to get into bed with the local temptress Fiorilla.

As sad, lovesick Zaida, ( Selim’s first love who had been sold into slavery in the backstory and escaped)  Anna Dowsley is magnificent She sings gloriously and looks as if she stepped out of a Picasso painting.

As Narcisso , Geronio’s ‘friend’ who is desperately in love with Fiorilla, Luciano Botelho has a strong, flexible  tenor voice and brings the house down particularly with his second act aria when he is changing in the bathing shed.

Emma Matthews as Fiorilla steals the show from her first joyous, exuberant entrance. She sings divinely, is a fantastic comic actress, and has us enthralled from her first appearance singing of the joys of love . At the start she is flighty, flirty and determined to have a very good time however this changes in Act 2 and her enforced moral u-turn with her big show stopping aria where she gloriously lets rip with a dazzling technical display that ravishes as she decides to return to the arms of Geronio .

Conal Coad as Geronio, her far older sugar-daddy husband has a whale of a time imitating his late middle-aged pomposity. Coad gives a masterly demonstration of buffo style, his distinctive bass always serving the text and yet also capable of some pretty nifty very fast breathless patter, quite G & S in style. The duet for Geronio and the Turk, for example , where the latter tries to haggle unsuccessfully to buy the former’s wife, is delightful and leads to a comic duel with lots of sight gags incorporating each protagonist’s national drinks , ice on delicate areas , lemons as bitter hand weapons, and a soda syphon that ends up all over Prosdocimo.

As I overheard another audience member say at the end ‘very silly, but absolutely wonderful ‘ Hear hear. Book now, if you haven’t already, before it sells out.  Opera Australia have brought us this delicious gelato of a very fresh and vibrant version, – go on , treat yourself.

Running time 3 hours (approx) including an interval

Opera Australia’s The Turk in Italy, directed by Simon Phillips,  is at the Sydney Opera House various dates in rep until February 12 and then plays Arts Centre Melbourne, May 1-13.