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A vintage comedy successfully updated

Gamle Scene
05/20/2009 -  & 23, 25, 27 May, 2, 4, 6, 8, 11*, 13 June
Gioacchino Rossini: Il Turco in Italia

Henriette Bonde-Hansen (Donna Fiorilla), Alessandro Corbelli/Nikolai Didenko* (Don Geronio), Tigran Martirossian (Selim), Palle Kihlberg Knudsen (Prosdocimo), Bo Kristian Jensen/Gert Henning-Jensen* (Don Narciso), Andrea Pellegrini (Zaida), Jakob Naeslund (Albazar)
Royal Opera Chorus, Philip White (Chorusmaster), Royal Opera Orchestra, Giancarlo Andretta (Conductor)
Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser (Directors), Christian Fenouillat (Set Designer), Agostino Cavalca (Costume Designer), Leah Hausman (Choreographer), Christophe Forey (Lighting Designer)

Copenhagen's Royal Theatre, now called the Old Stage (or Gamle Scene, dates from 1847. It seats about 1300 and, thanks to various upgrades throughout its history, still functions well. Copenhagen gained a lavish new opera house in 2005 but this has not led to the abandonment of the treasured old theatre. It is the main home of the Royal Danish Ballet, and some operas are still performed there, such as this sparkling production of Rossini's dramma buffo, Il Turco in Italia.

The libretto is by Felice Romani (who went on to provide libretti for Norma and L'Elisir d'Amore among many others) and is noted for preceding (if not anticipating) the theatrical devices of Luigi Pirandello by more than a century. Instead of six characters in search of an author, however, the plot involves a Neapolitan poet, Prosdocimo, who has been assigned to write a play and he comes across six characters whose real-life tribulations present a plot right before him. The main chracters are his employer, Don Geronio, and his much younger wife, Donna Fiorilla. She also has a possessive cicisbeo (a husband-sanctioned - sort of - boyfriend), Don Narciso. A handsome Turk, Selim, arrives in Naples and he and Fiorilla are instantly attracted to each other. Complicating matters further are Zaida, Selimäs ex-lover who is still in love with him, and her companion/protector, Albazar.

The producers have set the work in the 1950s/60s, the era of the Neapolitan comedies of Eduardo di Filippo, and this updating is one of the most successful I have ever seen. Characters arrive and depart in Fiats or on Vespas, Selim and Zaida make out in the back seat of a decrepit taxi and an array of Neapolitan street types provide flavour.

Shifting colourful panels deftly establish the various settings, always assisting the headlong momentum of the plot.

Leah Hausman's choreography is a high point in the costume ball scene in which half the male chorus turns up disguised as Fiorilla. Hausman might also be responsible for the happy dance Prosdocimo performs each time another zany plot element falls into his lap. Whoever is reponsible, this adds a delightful touch especially as performed by Palle Kihlberg Knudsen who, like the rest of the cast, gives a sharply-defined performance.

One might be expected to lose patience with a flibberty-gibbet like Fiorilla, but Henriette Bonde-Hansen delivers not only a sparkling performance both vocally and dramatically, but a sympathetic one as well. The crazy plot comes to a near-tragic head when it seems the Geronio/Fiorilla marriage truly is in jeopardy, and both Bonde-Hansen and Nikolai Didenko are successful in nmaking the most of this serious turn of events.

Tigran Martirossian is the very picture of the handsome babe-magnet Turk. Gert Henning-Jensen amusingly potrays the preening Narciso (another "modern" touch: in the finale, when Geronio/Fiorilla and Selim/Zaida are reconciled, odd-man-out Narciso has managed to acquire a construction-worker boyfriend.)

Both orchestra and chorus are first-rate. One cavil: Giancarlo Andretta conducts from a piano; I would have preferred a harpsichord.

This is a co-production with another Royal Opera House - the one at Covent Garden, London, where it will play in April, 2010. The British audience ought to enjoy it. Turco seems to have languished in the shadow of the more-performed Rossini comedies (Italiana, Barbiere, Cenerentola). For a long time only a faulty edition was available and this seems to have hampered the establishment of a performing tradition. The Rossini Foundation in Pesaro has supported the more definitive edition used in Copenhagen. That, plus a production as entertaining and musically acute as this one, should give the work the broader appeal it deserves.

Michael Johnson



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