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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Opera Review: Fezzes Are Cool

Juilliard Opera takes on Rossini's Il Turco in Italia.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Hyesang Park as Fiorilla in Il Turco in Italia.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2014 The Juilliard School.
The Juilliard Opera opened its 2014 season this week with a new production of Rossini's Il Turco in Italia, a genial comedy of manners that never caught fire with the opera-going public of the composer's day. Turco was viewed as an inferior sequel to the composer's wildly successful L'Italiana in Algeri and its libretto, chronicling the bed-hopping adventures of a licentious and married woman at a resort near Naples was considered immoral in Rossini's day. And it is a rarity: this was the first fully staged New York performance of the score since a New York City Opera production from 1978.

With that in mind, director John Giampietro and scening designer Alexis Distler updated Turco to a seaside resort in the 1960s, full of mysterious encounters, natty suits, skimpy dresses and a good dose of la bella vita. From the opening tableau, where uniformed attendees handed curative mineral waters to choristers, this production remained playful and engaging. Mr. Giampietro kept the comedy in constant motion, but also allowed the voices to make their own statement.

Updating the action by a century solved some (but not all) of the problems that lie at the core of this comedy. The title role is Selim, a traveling Turkish nobleman  who enters into an affair with a married woman while while simultaneously reconciling and rebuilding his relationship with his ex. In a natty suit, gold jewelry and a neat fez, Michael Sumuel proved an agile and able protagonist, navigating fast dialogue with spitfire precision while projecting an air of wounded nobility throughout.

Bedeviling the titular Turk (and most of the other men in the cast)  was Hyesang Park as Fiorilla, the bed-hopping wife who draws Selim's eye with her charms. In a bravura, occasionally breathless performance, Ms. Park gradually revealed the fine steel-sinewed instrument supporting this soubrette character, summoning bright fioratura runs in the fast arias and creating real human emotion in the great Act II aria where Fiorilla laments her husband's announcement that he will seek an immediate divorce.

When not entertaining Selim's advances, Fiorilla adroitly juggled her other lover Narciso (the bright-voiced, impressive young tenor Joseph Dennis) and her hapless husband Geronio (bass Daniel Miroslaw.) Mr. Miroslaw's performance went from wryly comic (he entered asking if the spa had a "cure for his wife's brain") to a rather pathetic portrait of a cuckolded spouse, before rediscovering his dignity in a very funny locker room towel fight with the Turk. From there, Geronio made a slow climb back to triumph as he saved his marriage. Mr. Miroslaw walked this tricky marital path, alternating genuinely funny comic ensemble singing with moments of madness and genuine grief.

While Fiorilla's adventures provided this show with much of its comic energy, the whole is framed as the struggle of a librettist Prodocimo (baritone Szymon Komasa) and his struggles with writer's block. Patrolling the stage in natty, slim-cut suits and horn-rimmed shades, Mr. Komasa was an epicenter of cool in this hot environment, indulging in comic asides to the audience and lending the weight of his voice to the big climactic ensembles.

The plot of Turco works toward reconciliation, with Selim reconnecting with his ex Zaida (the mezzo Kara Sainz) and busy Fiorilla learning the error of her ways. Yet despite the sometimes trite libretto, this cast kept the comic energy percolating with high-flying arias and moments of sheer virtuosity that are a hallmark of this conservatory. From Mr Dennis' jaw-dropping high note above the stave in his aria to the Violetta-like ornamentation that Ms. Park added in her last aria, this was an evening of vocal thrills, taut and adroitly conducted bnuder the baton of Speranza Cappuci.

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