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Rossini : Il Turco in Italia

Milan, La Scala, 1954 (Audio)

Director: Gianandrea Gavazzeni

  • Nicolai Gedda (Narciso)
  • Maria Callas (Fiorilla)
  • Piero de Palma (Albazar)
  • Iolanda Gardino (Zaida)
  • Nicolai Rossi Lemeni (Selim)

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    Rossini's "Il Turco in Italia has never enjoyed the success of that composers vastly more celebrated "Barbiere di Siviglia", but there are some wonderful and fun things here nonetheless. The fairly uncomplicated story of a viperish Italian woman (married to an elderly and passive husband) who falls for a visiting Turk evolves into a vibrant and funny "opera buffa" in the very skilled hands of Maria Callas, Nicola Rossi-Lemeni (in the title role), and Mariano Stabile (as a poet in search for a subject who observes and relishes the goings-on).
    While, of course, Callas was not readily associated with comedy (her profound assumptions of Norma, Medea, Lucia, Traviata, and Lady Macbeth were already legendary at the time of this 1954 recording), she had scored a great success in this opera, both in Rome, and in a celebrated La Scala revival.
    Callas is in stupendous voice here,she executes roulades, cadenzas, and top D's with a security she rarely exhibited thereafter. Moreover, she creates a real comic character. As is essential for this type of music, her enunciation is pushed forward, with incredibly clear declamation of both consonants and open vowel sounds. Her entire assumption here reminds one of a celebrated Hamlet who, for a change of pace, undertakes to undertake Falstaff, and Callas brings it off with tremendous panache.
    But she is not the only star here. Nicola Rossi-Lemeni is a wonderfully pompous Turk, and his duet work with Callas is in the greatest tradition of the art of opera-buffo. Mariano Stabile, one of the greatest Italian buffo baritones of the century, contributes a showy and humourous portrait of the poet in search of a subject. And as a bonus, the young Nicolai Gedda, in the relatively small role of Narciso, sings a short but very lyrical aria.
    Gavazzeni, who was one of the podium giants of the Italian opera stage several decades ago, conducts the beautiful score with a breezy and airy quality, always allowing his artists plenty of latitude to make their own particular mark on this music.

    It is hilarious to hear Callas singing the crafty Fiorilla, playing the "offended" wife to her husband's attempts to rein in her roving eye!. When she sings "No mia vita...mio tesoro" with such fake sticky-honeyed-tongue,you can HEAR her fake tears.
    Callas subtly overplays her singing from such roles as Elvira and Medea in this very small scene alone. She does it with such mastery, you can hear the musical threads of Elvira from "Qui la voce" in Fiorilla's "voi crudele!... mi fatte oltraggio! mi offendete!" in such pitiable tones that her husband bids good-bye to his courage after listening to such demonstrations of wounded dignity and pride.

    She sings her fake tears in such a way, that, for a moment you feel sorry for this wronged woman! then, through a subtle change in the shading of the notes,you realize, she's faking them! thorough the music, you can picture Fiorilla, looking thorough her fingers at her husband, pouring it on, laying it on thick, watching the effect her "tears" are having on the poor chap.

    When he kneels at her feet defeated, begging forgiveness, she rounds on him with such a Medea-esque fury in "ed ossate minnaciarmi! maltratarmi, spaventarmi! (and you dare to threaten me, mistreat me, scare me!) that the unhappy, innocent, unsuspecting, antler-addled man has no idea how he lost the argument!!. When Fiorilla knows she's won, you can hear again on her music, how blythely, happily and carefree, she goes out enjoying her power. I replay this scene over and over. And along with her husband, I am caught unaware and became dumbstruck by her tears and her fury.

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    Gianandrea Gavazzeni
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