Cast of Wolf Trap's "Turk in Italy" works hard, but singing, like story, is uneven

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 12, 2010; C08

Rossini's "The Turk in Italy" is an opera about writer's block. It's about a poet looking for a subject for an opera libretto. He has a hard time getting started, and so does the opera.

As the drunk poet staggers around the stage, one entrance piles on top of another. A bunch of Gypsies straight out of opera cliche! A cuckolded husband! A ship full of Turkish sailors! All of this eventually gets processed into an opera, the poet having decided to lift his libretto from the events around him: Two men are in love with the same woman, who is married to one of them but prefers the attentions of a visiting Turkish nobleman to either. With "Turk," Rossini was trying to create a follow-up to his hit comedy "The Italian Girl in Algiers," and one is constantly aware of the strain of creation.

None of this is the fault of the Wolf Trap Opera, which opened Gregory Keller's production of the piece on Friday night (it repeats Tuesday). Rossini's operas, buoyant and funny and Italian, are widely seen as ideal fare for the young voices that this company -- a summer training program for young professionals -- presents. Wolf Trap assembled a generally strong cast of singers eager to do more than go through the motions. And Eric Melear conducted vividly, though there were notable problems of coordination, which is to say that people had trouble making musical entrances at the same time.

How do you do more than go through the motions, though, when you're dealing with a plot that was amusingly trite even in the 19th century and is at best a relic now? Keller fell back on an all-too-common semaphore for hipness: sex jokes. There were a few crotch grabs too many, and at least one extraneous repeat of the boy-meets-sailor sight gag -- funny once, predictable the second time.

In fairness, "Turk" is a hard opera to stage because its humor is dark. Fiorilla, the hot babe everyone is in love with, blatantly mocks her weak, older husband, Geronio, while playing around with other men, and it's tricky to bring this across while keeping all the characters sympathetic.

Like the opera itself, the strong young cast took a while to get going. Once the first-night jitters had abated, Angela Mannino played Fiorilla with a bright-eyed, buxom mien and a voice that in its best passages had the fresh naturalness of an old-school singer. David Portillo brought very loud, ringing ardor to her lover, Narciso; Michael Anthony McGee was sweetly despairing as Geronio. As Selim, the Turk of the title, Michael Sumuel upheld the good impression he made in Mozart's "Zaide" earlier this summer, with a rich voice and a natural, easy stage manner that helped him retain credibility while avoiding the broad shtick the role easily invites. Catherine Martin brought a startlingly big sound, a little rough around the edges, to Wolf Trap's second Zaida of the summer; in this opera, she's the Gypsy who loved and lost Selim and spars with Fiorilla for his affections. Chad Sloan was an adequate poet, slightly overdoing his addiction to the limelight. But most of them suffered from imprecision; they would have made a far stronger impression if they had sung more cleanly in the long passages of rapid, precise, sometimes tongue-twisting notes that are a Rossini hallmark.

And this opera needs all the dazzle it can get. Some of its most beautiful passages are somber, like the wistful a cappella quintet during the culminating comedy of identities, with three men onstage dressed as Selim and two women dressed as Fiorilla, each with his or her own agenda. And the luster is abruptly dimmed when Fiorilla gets her comeuppance for her blatant infidelities, as her final aria is one of bitter contrition rather than, as in other Rossini works (think "Cinderella"), of release. Even after the creator finally finds his subject, he has to struggle to make it sparkle, or to bring things to a proper close with the last-minute happy ending.

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