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Farce Italian Style

[whitespace] Turk in Italy Dropping Anchor: Pasha Selim (Dean Elzinga) takes an interest in Fiorilla (Maureen Magill).

Scott Hinrichs

The melody outcharms the silly story line in Opera San José's production of Rossini's comic 'Turk in Italy'

By Philip Collins

THE UNEVEN GENIUS of Rossini's Il Turco in Italia (The Turk in Italy) is well compensated for in Opera San José's present revival of this little-encountered and very farcical two-act opera. Rossini parodies the formulas of 19th-century opera amusingly but also at great length. Stage director Daniel Helfgot is ever resourceful--indefatigable, really--in making the most of it. Even the more rambling stretches move along mercifully, as much on the wings of melody as on Helfgot's clever staging solutions.

The opera's comic setups are shrewdly capitalized upon, with dips into camp at times, but never so thickly as to gum up the works or take focus away from the story line (which needs all the help it can get).

The underlying conceit of the opera is that of a show within a show. From outside the proscenium, downstage and off to the side, a poet agonizes over a libretto-in-progress, while on centerstage, his characters and ideas take wing.

The libretto (in reality written by Felice Romani) concerns the romantic upheavals and cross-maneuvers that erupt when a handsome Turkish aristocrat, Pasha Selim, drops anchor in a little Italian town. The plot is as thin as croissant dough while at the same time absurdly entangled by minutia. But that hardly matters, for dramatic integrity is as irrelevant to this work as nutrition is to French pastries.

Rossini has fun blurring the lines between the perspectives of the centrally staged action and the poet's confessions to the audience. Sometimes the poet intrudes upon the story to confer with the actors, and other times, they step out of frame to advise him on their characters' development. By the finale, the enterprise is reeling off-axis, with the characters rebelling against the poet's directions and opting for schemes of their own designs.

Some terrific songs and potently fashioned scenes prove that The Turk in Italy is the work of a composer gifted and savvy. Built-in laughs abound, and ludicrous situations are time and again rendered charming by Rossini's supple melodiousness. For the most part, though, the composer left it up to the wiles of his future interpreters to make the enterprise viable over two and a half hours' time.

OPERA SAN JOSÉ'S production manages impressively to make the time pass pleasingly. Helfgot could not have hoped for a better opening-night cast. The singing glowed across the board, and the romping spirit thrived from beginning to end.

Since the poet is the resident conjurer of all that occurs, one could argue that the show belongs to him, and baritone Brian Leerhuber (the major parts are double cast) leaves no doubt about who holds the pink slip. With finesse and rapier speed, Leerhuber keeps the pace brisk, and his singing has a wry edge reminiscent of Joel Grey's performance in Cabaret.

As Fiorilla, the town tart, Maureen Magill is a cabin on fire. Magill radiates Fiorilla's insatiable appetites with relish, and her comic embellishments are mannered delectably. Upon the Turk's arrival, Fiorilla already has a frumpy, aging husband, Don Geronio, and a deluded suitor, Don Narciso, in tow, yet she makes no secret of her belief that a wealthy Turk would make a fetching addition to her collection.

Her opening aria, "There is no greater folly than to love just one man," captured capriciousness in gorgeous terms, and for the song's climactic denouement, she blasted into the upper ledger lines with the brilliance of a baroque trumpet.

As Zaida the Gypsy, mezzo-soprano Layna Chianakas vies formidably against Fiorilla for the Turk's affections. As she's evinced on many prior occasions at Opera San José, Chianakas possesses sharp comedic instincts and a beguiling instrument that smoothly negotiates mid-to-upper- range assignments.

Dean Elzinga makes a statuesque and dynamic Turk. Elastic yet poised at all times, Elzinga uses his height advantageously when downsizing the confidence of the local boys, and his singing backs it up voluminously. Carl King's Don Geronio is appropriately pitiful throughout, yet when confronted by the Turk to sell his wife, King lets loose with the heavy artillery (quite literally), and he holds his own credibly. Rossini allotted little development to Don Narciso, but when the spotlight turned his way, in a bittersweet lament in Act 2, tenor Robert McPherson soared like a comet.

Conductor Barbara Day Turner elicited streamlined support from the orchestra and, for the recitatives, captivating harpsichord work. There was also some particularly fine solo playing: especially Larry Osborne's horn solo in the overture and Deborah Kramer's nimble bassoon passagework.

Handsome couplings from the production's design team make The Turk in Italy as sumptuous for the eyes as for the ears. Giulio Perrone's sets are beautifully colored and ingenious; Cathleen Edwards' costuming marries Mediterranean brilliance and earthen peasant tones snugly. The lighting by Barbara Du Bois, as always, deftly accentuates their work.

The Turk in Italy plays March 26-28, 31 and April 2 and 4 at 8pm and March 29 and April 5 at 3pm at the Montgomery Theater, Market and San Carlos streets, San Jose. Tickets are $30-$48. (408/437-4450).

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From the March 26-April 1, 1998 issue of Metro.

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