Review: Partying in Los Angeles – Machaidze, Gavanelli Romp in All-Star “Turco in Italia” – Los Angeles Opera, February 19, 2011

Los Angeles, a town that knows how to party,  dubbed the third Saturday of February 2011 as the first day of an All-Star Weekend, because the City of the Angels was chosen as the site of the 2011 National Basketball Association All-Star Game. The Big Game was to be played at the Staples Center, just a few blocks south of the Downtown Los Angeles, home to two NBA teams, most famously the Los Angeles Lakers. A mile and a half Northeast of the Staples Center is the Los Angeles Music Center, including the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where the Los Angeles Opera performs.

No All-Star basketball performance was scheduled for Saturday evening. The Big Game would take place in the Sunday twilight, but Saturday night the town was abuzz with parties, many sponsored by the celebrity nobility of Basketball, Rock and Rap, and Hollywood.

In the midst of this orgy of merriment, the Los Angeles Opera, in a move most everyone assumes was not coordinated with the National Basketball Association, came up with a big play of its own, the importation of Christof Loy’s impertinent production of Rossini’s “Il Turco in Italia”, an opera new to Los Angeles Opera (and still unperformed on the mainstages of  most of the major American companies). It assembled its own All-Star cast for the project.

Even among All-Stars, as the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant’s Most Valuable Player award for the subsequent Big Game attests, there are standouts. Two emerged as the “Turco” franchise players – Georgian soprano Nino Machaidze as Fiorella (the role with which Maria Callas was associated 60 years ago) and the eminent Italian baritone Paolo Gavanelli. But Machaidze and Gavanelli had co-stars of the first rank – none less than Sir Thomas Allen as the Poet, Simone Alberghetti as Selim the Turk, and Kate Lindsey as Zaida.

Nino Machaidze, who had opened the previous season as Adina in a performance that demonstrated that the tenor need not be the center of all attention in the Donizetti comedy (see my review at: Los Angeles Opera’s Magic Potion: Nino Machaidze in “L’Elisir d’Amore” – September 12, 2009) made the case that Fiorella is one of Rossini’s great soprano roles. She performed the often taxing coloratura with seeming effortlessness.

Fiorella is a character who does not conform to the 19th century stereotype of a virtuous Italian wife, but balancing her often outrageous flaunting of her marriage vows, there is evidence of a loyalty to her husband and regret that she has humiliated him. This is expressed in one of Rossini’s most introspective arias, Squallida veste. Singing affectingly, Machaizde obviously connected with the Los Angeles Opera audience, receiving extensive applause following the aria and a standing ovation at the final curtain.

[Below: Fiorella (Nino Machaidze), believing she has been thrown out of her house for infidelity to her husband, expresses deep regret for her behavior; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

I suspect that no one who has seen Machaidze in other roles would have been surprised at her success in this role in which Maria Callas had excelled. The Los Angeles Opera, aware that they have become the crucible for introducing a superstar to American audiences, has already scheduled the threefer three assignment for the next season – the role of Juliet to the Romeo of the rising celebrity Vittorio Grigolo – assuring another Machaidze slam dunk.

On the other hand, it was not at all obvious that the great Verdian baritone Paolo Gavanelli would be introduced to Los Angeles audiences in the role of the cuckolded husband Don Geronio, but Gavanelli, making his Los Angeles Opera debut, contributed a mesmerizing performance. The role is remarkable among the Italian buffo roles, in that the character exhibits many of the characteristics of the elderly, cuckolded Italian husband, yet “gets the girl” in the end.

[Below: in the attempt to get a fix on his wife’s notorious behavior, Don Geronio (Paolo Gavanelli, center in white suit) consults the astrological skills of a Turkish gypsy band; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

For me, who has admired Gavanelli’s superb performances in several great baritone roles – the title roles of Verdi’s “Nabucco” and “Rigoletto” (see my review at Gavanelli Dominates Strongly Cast S.F. “Rigoletto” – October 15, 2006), Gerard in Giordano’s “Andrea Chenier” and Michele in Puccini’s “Il Tabarro” (see my review at Gavanelli, Racette, Jovanovich In Rousing “Tabarro” at San Francisco Opera – September 15, 2009), Gavanelli’s performance was revelatory. The same evening that I saw his Michele, he also took on his debut in the title role of Puccini’s comic opera “Gianni Schicchi” (see my review at Gavanelli’s Commanding Presence as San Francisco Opera’s Gianni Schicchi – September 15, 2009), but Schicchi is quite a different part than Don Geronio, which is comprised of classic Rossinian patter songs and zany over the top acting.

To me, Geronio’s situation is like that of the title character in Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale”, although it’s as if Don Pasquale has married Norina, who continues to have extramarital affairs with Ernesto, and then Norina betrays both Pasquale and Ernesto through an affair with another party. But if Pasquale’s strategy of disinheriting and throwing his nephew Ernesto out into the cold backfired, Geronio’s pretense of divorcing his errant wife results in his wife’s instant acquiescence to Geronio’s demands, demonstrating her willingness to make positive changes in their relationship.

Perhaps this plot turn strains credulity (as if anything in a Rossini comedy can be thought of as verismo), but Gavanelli’s exuberant personality transforms this role – so unlike those on which his deserved fame rests – into a triumph. Not only does he have opportunities to exhibit the secure dramatic baritone for which is so celebrated, he shows great skill with the patter songs, as if he were a born buffo. For once, the audience can connect to a Don Geronio that seems a better catch than the two men – Selim and Narciso – with whom Fiorella has dallied.

James Conlon and the Other Worthies

Obviously, I believe the contributions of Machaidze and Gavanelli are worth the effort for those who appreciate great bel canto singing – and who are curious to see a Rossinian road less traveled – to fly from some distant point to Los Angeles to experience the performance. But I have a list of other reasons to attend “Turco” – the conductor, James Conlon, and the other principals in the cast.

Although Conlon is best known for his interpretations of the great Wagner and Verdi operas, he has an obvious affection for the bel canto era of Italian opera. His never-to-be-missed lectures the hour before each of his Los Angeles Opera conducting assignments (this time beginning a few minutes late  because Conlon himself was caught in the crush of All-Star Weekend traffic), was a primer on Rossini and on the specific importance of “Turco” to the later development of Italian opera. Although he had not conducted the opera in performance before that evening, he had come to know it when working on the crew as a student nearly a half century ago. Los Angeles got a whirlwind of a performance that would surely have caused Rossini to smile.

Unlike other Italian comic operas, there is the role of a poet, who functions as if he is the librettist wandering through the opera, meeting its characters and figuring out how they might create situations that advance the action and the comedy. The poet was sung by Sir Thomas Allen in the brilliant characterization one would expect from this veteran.

The title role of the Turk Selim was sung competently by Italian bass baritone Simone Alberghini. The other principals playing Turkish roles included, as Zaida, Kate Lindsey, whose triumphs at Santa Fe Opera (see, for example, my review at  Groves, Wall, Lindsey Excel in Christopher Alden’s Harrowing, Hallucinatory “Hoffmann” – Santa Fe Opera, July 17, 2010) hastened the invitations for debuts in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Her companion and apparent love interest while banished from Selim’s harem was character tenor Matthew O’Neill, who has established a secure niche as comic comprimario.

[Below: the Poet (Sir Thomas Allen, center, seated), sees the dramatic possibilities afforded by the harem expatriate Zaida (Kate Lindsey, left) and her sidekick, Albazar (Matthew O’Neill); edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

There is one other principal, the randy, self-absorbed tenor character, Don Narciso, played by the Russian leggiero tenor Maxim Mironov in his American debut. Even though his voice was challenged by the size of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (for the “Turco” performances using an open, rather than covered, orchestra pit), he demonstrated the rare coloratura style that few tenors have even assayed, much less mastered. But he was not only an accomplished Rossini tenor, he was a spirited comic actor, adopting the movements we associate with the 1950s “cool cat” American males, rather like Kenickie, the Jeff Conaway character, and his mates in the movie Grease.

[Below: Don Narciso (Maxim Mironov) reflects on just how sexy he must seem to the women around him; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

Christof Loy’s engaging production, created for the Hamburg Opera in 2005, has been making the rounds of European cities for the past half decade, but is new to the U.S. Its most memorable sight gag, a barb at some European attitudes towards their Turkish and gypsy minority populations, was a small trailer at center stage, from which six or eight at a time, the entire chorus emerges.

The scene of the Turkish/gypsy encampment on a beachfront of the Bay of Naples provides a setting for all the opera’s characters to be introduced, beginning with Lindsey’s Zaida, smoldering at the accusation of infidelity to Selim that has banished her from his harem, while rarely leaving the sight of her “bodyguard” – O’Neill’s Albazar.

Next Allen’s Poet arrives to start plotting his plot-line, followed by Gavanelli’s expansive Geronio. Then Machaidze’s elegantly clad Fiorella arrives (in Loy’s production accompanied by Mironov’s Narciso, who disappears with Fiorella offstage for a few moments and then returns to center stage, zipping up his fly).

Soon Alberghini’s Selim the Turk arrives (in another imaginative Loy touch, by a magic carpet descending to the stage) and, before long, Selim and Fiorella have disrupted all the previous romantic relationships.

[Below: Fiorella (Nino Machaidze) catches the eye of Selim the Turk (Simone Alberghini) who is checking out the scene on the Naples seashore; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

The results are wild and wacky, including a masquerade in which the principal male characters are wearing Fezes and Turkish garb and the two females observing the proper dress code for harem beauties. At the end, in a kind of onstage “split screen” one sees a now happy Turkish couple (Selim and Zaida, with Albazar lurking somewhere about) and an Italian one (Fiorella and Don Geronio, with Don Narciso a few paces away, if needed).

[Below: Christof Loy’s second act scene in which all dress as Turks; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

The Los Angeles Opera has provided California audiences with a first rate production of this rather rare Rossini opera, in which the performances are compelling and in a production that effuses fun.

The opera is, however, hardly a primer on the model marriage. Knowing that Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte” for a period lasting more than a century was considered a bit too racy to mount on the operatic stage , one can understand why the unabashedly licentious plot of “Turco” would cause some opera company managements to defer to the safer fare of Rossini’s “Barber of Seville”, “Italian Girl in Algiers” and “La Cenerentola”. But the 21st century may prove a more propitious time for it.

The influence of Mozart on Rossini (and especially on this opera) has never been contested. In fact, the gypsies at one point sing the melody of the stone guest’s main aria in the banquet scene of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” and the points of homage to Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte” and “Marriage of Figaro” are readily discernible to any student of Mozart’s operas.

As a final coda to the evening’s festivities, my wife and I returned to our hotel, where we, as registered guests, were permitted to go to the front of the line of the hundreds of people waiting to enter the hotel (the Los Angeles Athletic Club, where we were staying in the suite that was comprised of the bedroom and parlor that served as the Hollywood home of another All-Star of performance comedy, Charles Chaplin) to attend the Los Angeles Lakers’ party, happening nine floors below us.

Los Angeles Opera may have scheduled its premiere of the work during All-Star Weekend, but after the weekend, when the pre-game and after-game parties have all ended, and the basketball All-Stars have left for home, there are several more All-Star events at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. “Turco”, in Loy’s production with the cast that Los Angeles Opera has assembled, is a party any fan of Italian comic opera should have on their calendar.