The Turk in Italy: A Clash of Cultures at Zurich Opera

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Rossini, Il Turco in Italia: Soloists, Chorus of the Zurich Opera, Philharmonia Zurich / Enrique Mazzola (conductor), Zurich Opera, Zurich 28.4.2019. (JR)

Donna Fiorilla (Julie Fuchs), Selim (Nahuel Di Pierro), Don Narciso (Edgardo Rocha),
Don Geronio (Renato Girolami): © Hans Jörg Michel

Director – Jan Philipp Gloger
Set – Ben Baur
Costumes – Karin Jud
Lighting – Martin Gebhardt
Video design – Sami Bill
Chorus-master – Ernst Raffelsberger
Dramaturgy – Claus Spahn

Selim – Nahuel Di Pierro
Donna Fiorilla – Julie Fuchs
Don Geronio – Renato Girolami
Don Narciso – Edgardo Rocha
Prosdocimo – Pietro Spagnoli
Zaida – Rebeca Olvero
Albazar – Nathan Haller

To be a success, The Turk in Italy requires a great staging, free of clichés. In terms of catchy tunes it falls somewhat short – it is early and perhaps underestimated Rossini, written when the composer was only 22. The opera tends to be overshadowed by the more popular and more often performed The Italian Girl in Algiers, which Rossini had composed just one year earlier.

Luckily for Zurich Opera, they engaged the services of Jan Philipp Gloger as producer, and this new production came up trumps. The set was spectacular: three almost identical apartments on an almost continually revolving stage. One apartment an office for the poet (in this modern production a documentary film producer), one apartment a standard family living room for the Italian family, the third identically furnished but embroidered with a Turkish carpet, oriental throw over the sofa, a picture of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, an oud and a shisha, for Selim the Turk of course. One section of the stage was reserved for the entrance of the apartment block, complete with post boxes and bin with a glimpse into the communal laundry room, where assignations between the amorous residents could take place.

Gloger updates the opera to current times, so the Turkish gypsies became Turkish migrants. (Actually the Turks arrived in Western Europe as Gastarbeiter, or guest workers, in the 1960s and 1970s, so to be entirely accurate the migrants should have been Syrians.) Right-wing political posters urged the local residents to vote against allowing women in burkas. The clash of cultures is as alive in 2019 as it was two hundred years ago.

There was one oddity in the production: a photograph of the Italian family showed the couple with a young son. Geronio wielded a toy crane at one stage, but the boy was nowhere to be seen – no child is mentioned in the libretto, as far as I am aware. Perhaps the child was simply introduced to give more credence to the fact that attractive Fiorilla ultimately decides to stay with her avuncular husband, choosing him over the dashing young Turk and her other suitors.

The Turks were clad in black tracksuits and similar drab garb, presumably all they owned. The Italians wore slightly more colourful casual wear, but we were clearly in the land of social housing. Only when Zaida told Selim’s fortune did she don a garishly multi-coloured gypsy outfit.

The young singers took a while to warm up and rise to Rossini’s lightning-quick tempi. French soprano Julie Fuchs, a regular in Zurich (having been in Zurich Opera’s ensemble for some years and fresh from maternity leave) delighted as Fiorilla, as much for her coquettish acting skills as her nimble coloratura. Argentinian Nahuel Di Pierro was an agile and sonorous bass, who looked every inch the part. Stealing the show, however, were the two older Italian men, neither unknown on world stages: Renato Girolami as Geronio and Pietro Spagnoli as the poet Prosdocimo, who both looked as if they were enjoying themselves. Their voices were firm, their diction crisp as they rattled off Rossini’s tongue-twisters. Girolami’s rich, seasoned baritone was particularly imposing, Spagnoli’s lighter baritone no less impressive.

Edgar Rocha tries to follow in the footsteps of Javier Camarena. However, portraying Narciso as the meek caretaker of the apartment block, he was less comfortable on this evening with his high notes as he can often be – though he hit them in the end, in his aria seeking revenge. Rebeca Olvera as Zaida sang well but did not stand out.

Mazzola, soon to be seen at the Bregenz Festival conducting Rigoletto, kept a firm hand on the proceedings in the pit; the orchestra also took a while to come up to speed and the brass had a choppy evening. The chorus, especially the men, were well rehearsed.

Zurich Opera last put on this opera in 2002, when Welser-Möst was in the pit, with Ruggero Raimondi and Cecilia Bartoli on stage. That is a hard act to follow. This time round the opera is perhaps most worth seeing for the production and the set, and it certainly makes for an entertaining evening.

John Rhodes

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