When an opera company mounts a regional premiere of a 200-year-old opera, you have to ask why no-one else has done it. The answer, once you see Tacoma Opera’s production of Rossini’s “The Turk in Italy,” on this weekend in the Rialto Theater, is clear: It needs a brilliantly even cast and a clever stage director. This production has both in spades, with the bonus of a skilled conductor, sensitive orchestra and a very versatile set.
In telling the story of a married couple torn apart by a woman who can’t stop flirting, this opera doesn’t exactly break ground plot-wise; nor does it go emotionally beyond Rossini’s usual froth – though that’s always lovely to hear. But three and a quarter hours of froth is pretty hard to take without something more, and for Tacoma Opera that something would be sheer vocal and comic chutzpah. Every one of the five main principals has superb control of these difficult lines, and each has a delightfully entertaining take on the opera’s stock characters.
Chad Sloan, as the poet who controls the plot, manages the less-than-thrilling recitative with pleasant baritone and engaging enthusiasm; David Borning brings the cuckolded husband Geronio to larger-than-life, his big, rich voice and stiff Godfather build made all the more comic by the pathetic undertone. As the flirty Fiorilla, who keeps at least ten men going at one time, Jennifer Bromagen is the epitome of elegant, imposing diva in green 1920s Chinoiserie, with a shining coloratura and brilliant high notes. Zaida, her rival, who’s trying to win back the Turkish prince Selim from Fiorilla’s clutches, is played by the ever-bubbly Sarah Mattox in fez and gypsy skirt (and very weird stripy leg-warmers), her mezzo highly polished.
Nicholas Nelson makes a haughty Selim with sepulchral but mellifluous bass, and Bryan Hiroto Stenson adds a light tenor and bounce as the side character Albazar.
But the audience hit is Robert McPherson. Transforming Fiorilla’s spurned lover Narciso into a bumbling clown hiding behind shrubbery, McPherson fills the theater with a silvery tenor both effortlessly powerful and astonishingly pure, even the many ringing high E-flats.
All of these impressive singers are given plenty of space and really funny blocking by stage director Christopher Nardine.
The orchestra manages the tricky task of accompanying from onstage with delicacy and accuracy, including lovely horn and trumpet solos, and pulling the whole thing together from either side of the stage is the ever-skilled conductor Bernard Kwiram. The chorus is cheerful and convincing, whether as mischievous gypsies, flighty flappers or swooning suitors, and Judy Cullen’s set of railings, lanterns and occasional azure furniture pieces turns bare-bones into an enviable versatility.
Despite some surtitle glitches, and lack of cuts in the endless Act II arias, this is an opera not to miss. Highlights of the second act include bathing in McPherson’s virtuosity and simply beautiful voice, watching Mattox sashay in ridiculous imitation of Fiorilla and reveling in the crazy antics and glorious tuttis of the ball scene.
This production deserves far more than the 1/3-full house it opened to Friday night (due possibly to the recent change of company director.) Whether in stunning vocal work or hilarious acting, “The Turk in Italy” is a treat from beginning to end.