Il turco in Italia, it has to be said, is not Rossini's strongest work musically. There are endless yards of tiddly-pom, and even the arias are not his most melodic or memorable. The reason it's so widely-performed has to lie in the ingenious plot and superb dramatic pacing.
A strong production can paper over the weaknesses, and as they've demonstrated with their Covent Garden La Cenerentola and Il barbiere di Siviglia, Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser have a special affinity for Rossini's cruel wit. For Il turco in Italia, here on its second run, the broad-stroked humour is again echoed in the bold colours and sharp lines of the early sixties, where Aleksandra Kursak's gloved and girdled Fiorilla is fomenting her own sexual revolution, regardless of her hapless husband Alessandro Corbelli's protests.
Linda di Chamounix - Royal Opera House, 7 September 2009
The preposterous plotting and cardboard characters of Linda di Chamounix might explain why the Royal Opera House haven't exposed us to Donizetti's alpine tale of imperilled virginity before. It's easier to swallow in concert though. And the reduction in the lederhosen bill must be a bonus.
It wasn't even fashionably 'semi-staged'. Recorded over two nights (the second is 14 September) for release on the Opera Rara label, the priority was the sound. So the cast were nailed to the floor, scores permanently at the ready. Only Alessandro Corbelli, as Linda's amiably lecherous pursuer the Marquis, made his entrances in character or chanced any facial expression - and in the only comic role, he had a pretty good excuse. The major drama of the evening was a pause while Mark Elder stooped to gather a cascade of cards that slipped from the score of Eglise Gutiérrez (swaddled in a frock not built for bending) on her entrance. Yes it really was that exciting.
So this time it really was all about the music - over three hours of it, so I’m guessing we got the uncut version. The ROH orchestra didn’t sound at their best liberated from the pit, and with vibrato limited to the top string, some suspect intonation was exposed. But Mark Elder’s pacing was sprightly and his dynamics attentive to vocal needs.
The only really well-known aria in this opera is Linda’s O luce di quest'anima. It’s the first thing she sings and it’s devilishily tough, even more so from a cold start. Eglise Gutiérrez was no swooning heroine, but a woman with a job to do and a recording to make. Her veiled tone and accurate but thin top notes spelled caution (though they weren’t weak enough to merit the isolated and very rude outbreaks of hissing from the stalls - is this where the loggione visit when their natural habitat is poisoned by the management?). Linda’s madness as she believes herself alone and ruined was hard to deduce from Gutiérrez’s tightly-controlled depiction. Perhaps her corset was too tight. She didn’t reach out and touch in the way a full-fledged dramatic performance might, but I bet she’ll sound impressive on the CD.
*UPDATE* - listen to the live O luce recording - and more - on the iPlayer here - it starts at 1:12 (thanks Hariclea for the tip!)
Stephen Costello’s presence and charisma and his bright, ringing tenor bode well for his full debut in Gianni Schicchi later in the season, and he could be forgiven for tiring a little towards the end. Ludovic Tézier played Linda's father in a very attractive voice, big, rich and steady, but he wasn’t particularly expressive, or particularly Italianate for that matter.
Alessandro Corbelli was perhaps predictably a cut above the rest of the cast with his immaculate patter, but Marianna Pizzolato in the trouser role of Pierotto was a surprise hit too with her warm, characterful singing. Elizabeth Sikora, Luciano Botelho and Balint Szabó gave quality support - I've been to a few of these Opera Rara recording/performances now, and top to bottom this must rank amongst the finest.
So, not a vintage start to the season, but really not bad either.