Christopher Alden talks about his new production Il Turco in Italia

How did you approach Il Turco in Italia, how do you understand it?

Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868)
Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868)

It’s the piece that I love, and once did years ago at the Long Beach Opera. I thought about it for years. It has this element running through the libretto about the cultural differences between two people who fall for each other. To me it’s about how brave they both are in this relationship that they begin– they break through the cultural barriers. In their relationship, they move out of their comfort zones. The ending is sad, because each goes back to their original partner, he to the woman from his culture, she to her husband.

Another special thing about the work is the character of the poet who wanders through the piece. At the beginning this writer appears, and says, I have to come up with a plot for a dramma buffa but I can’t think of any plot, and starts following what’s happening with the other characters. All the way through the opera, he pushes the characters in certain direction to do things which would be more exciting.

It’s an aspect reminiscent of Pirandello. The way the libretto’s written, it’s a bit more like the poet runs into these people and is inspired by what he sees happening with them. The way I am tending to do it here in this production is a little bit more in the Pirandello vein, like Six Characters In Search of an Author. Sort of a dreamier, less literal way of telling the story. You’re in this space which is like a rehearsal space, or a limbo where these people are sitting around waiting for this man, the poet, who is a writer but also perhaps in many ways like an opera director. They’re all waiting for him to tell them who they are and what their story is. The production veers between the cracks of reality and fantasy or creativity, so you’re not quite sure whether the events are real or not. 

Is the character of the Turk really from an Eastern country and Fiorilla a West European?

Weeeelll…it’s a funny aspect of doing these pieces from the past… this piece or the other Rossini opera, L’Italiana in Algeri, or Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio, where you have the clash between East and West, and the Muslim side is portrayed in a sort of buffoonish way. Confronting those pieces now it’s always a tricky thing… What kind of context can you put that in? In this production we’re downplaying that aspect of it and definitely downplaying the buffoonishness of the Salim character. In fact he’s played rather like a very serious, sensitive, intelligent man with a damaged past. A man who comes to Italy to get away from his bruised past and to see a different life. And Fiorilla, this Italian woman, picks him up, basically. She goes to the part of (ostensively) Naples where Gypsies hang out, where people go to have assignations, and meets him there. The woman who has a strong sense of freedom, who wants to live her life the way she wants to and not play by the rules of her society, finds this attractive guy and is intrigued. She also plays a dangerous game with him, wants to possess him but also maybe wants to destroy him. And drives him crazy in that way. There’s a dark side to it–an s/m side to this relationship.

alden headshot
Christopher Alden

So she indeed lives in Naples, that hasn’t changed?

They talk about Naples in the text, so that remains of course. In this production, it’s sort of mid-twentieth century Italian-ish feel to it, but more like a drier, Pirandello aesthetic. They are sort of in a rehearsal room, all these men and women together. It’s a world of men, with only two female characters, Fiorilla and Zaida. A room filled with men obsessing about this one woman: how they desire her and they’re in love with her and put her up on a pedestal but they also fear her and hate her and want to push her off the pedestal. Which is exactly what happens in the denouement of the opera.

At the end she is made to show her vulnerability. Underneath the bravado she wants to have a strong man to take care of her etc. etc. It’s kind of like you couldn’t have a nineteenth century Italian opera with a strong female character without having her have some kind of a fall at the end. Opera was entertainment where men go to the theatre to watch a beautiful woman suffer and die or get pushed off the pedestal. So this is how this opera ends too.

And for the most part Fiorilla actually runs the show. It’s just wonderful to see a free female character like that on stage.

I know, I know. It’s exciting, that character. And I have this amazing lady playing it, Olga Peretyatko. She’s an extraordinary singer but also wonderful actress. And she’s great in this role. The way she is as a person, she’s a really strong, take-charge kind of a person and she’s doing some exciting work in this. One of those opera singers who really want to find it for themselves, and make it their own. I’ll feed her an idea and she’ll say, OK, great, don’t tell me any more! She wants to work on the character herself, which is fun.

Can you tell more about the Pirandello side of the production.

We observe the writer working out his ideas, his feelings about life and society, his issues about women, and you get an interesting perspective on the creative process and the writer’s relationship to a story or to the characters in his story. When you read about the families of writers, there’s often a lot of interesting tensions between a writer and people close to him that gets used as fodder for writer’s work. We read a lot about that. And our production also has that going on. People in this story often turn to him and they’re upset that he’s excited by what’s happening in their lives—he thinks they contain many dramaturgic possibilities. It was interesting to work through this piece always with the perspective of How does the writer feel about what’s happening in this scene? How does he feel about the end of this piece especially? When two people have the courage to break their cultural barriers and connect, how does the writer feel about backing away from it and writing this kind of ending? He created this strong female character but by the end her strength is traded off.

I gather you don’t really see Il Turco as a comedy?

I think it’s always interesting what serious things you can talk about through comedy. This piece is a good example of that. The clash of cultures, which is also a metaphor for the clash of cultures between men and women… this piece has a lot to say about that, but it’s all said  essentially through these comic situations.

But even in itself, the way the piece is written, there’s sort of a turning point two thirds of the way in the act two when Fiorilla realizes that there’s a threat of losing her husband—that there’s a chance that she will return to the lower class upbringing that she came from, with her parents in Sorrento. The tone perceptibly changes.

And, thinking about this piece, I realized that were many parallels with the life of Maria Callas. A woman with a wealthy husband, like Callas’s husband Meneghini, but then this exciting stranger on a yacht shows up and she leaves the comfort of that life to be with Onassis. And how that parallel is played out in this production is that Fiorilla is in a way the diva of the company. It’s very much about this woman’s relationships with all of these men in the room, with the poet who is like a writer or director like Visconti, or Zeffirelli, or Pasolini. There’s also her relationship with the husband who’s like one of those husbands of sopranos who sits in the rehearsal room reading a newspaper because he’s afraid to leave his wife alone because she’ll have a thing with the leading man, which is exactly what happens in this piece. Then there’s also the character of the tenor, written to be one of her lovers or ex-lovers but in this production we’re playing him a bit more like a sort of stalker/fan who’s always following her around. A dodgy guy in a raincoat who, as the piece goes on, takes a more and more dangerous and threatening aspect.

Toi toi toi for the opening night! The production is going to be seen also in Dijon and in Poland?

It’ll be Dijon, Warsaw, Torino and Bahrain, those are the four co-producers. It’s a fitting mish-mash of cultures.

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Gioacchino Rossini (1792 – 1868) IL TURCO IN ITALIA. Dramma buffo in two acts on a libretto by Felice Romani. World premiere on 14 August 1814 at Teatro alla Scala in Milan.

The new Aix-en-Provence production to open (if the strike action by the intermittents du spectacle does not take place) on July 4 at the Théâtre de l’Archevêché. Stage direction: Christopher Alden, musical direction Marc Minkowski. Full cast & creative

Il Turco in CD artwork:

Callas-Il Turco CDIl Turco-Caballe-Ramey

 

Il Turco-Sumi Jo

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