Il turco in Italia
Première on Saturday, July 21, 2007 in the Prinzregententheater
LONGING FOR THE UNKNOWN
CHRISTOF LOY ON HIS PRODUCTION OF "IL TURCO IN ITALIA"
In the opera “Il turco in Italia”, the so-called Turquoiserie is just window dressing and has very little to do with the dramatic action. Is there still some Near Eastern flair in your production?
Only in the character of the Turk and perhaps his former favorite Zaida, at least this is suggested in the libretto. I go one step farther by visually injecting a little more Near East than was originally intended by the authors when the Turk puts in his appearance, because I think it’s important for us to sense Fiorilla’s longing for something new and unknown. It has to do with the yearned-for encounter with a Turk, who comes floating in as if out of a dream, a kind of Near Eastern fairy tale. Another thing is interesting: the play begins with a Gypsy scene, which marks a borderline area. People think of Gypsies as part of our Central European world, but their lifestyle also connects them with the Middle East.
Don Geronio seeks out a Gypsy fortune-teller to help him solve his marital problems...
This very scene marks an opening. Although at the end of the story, we come to the realization that in the final analysis everyone ought to remain in his or her own familiar home territory. The drama begins programmatically with a chorus: “Nostra patria è il mondo intero” (“Our homeland is the whole world”). And it is very nice that an expansion of horizons takes place for all the participants, which then leads on to a new limitation on another level.
Were you able during your work to identify with the poet Prosdocimo?
Initially, as stage director, one can identify with this character very well, because the questions the poet raises for his planned libretto are similar to the ones faced by a stage director who has to work out a concept for an opera. You ask yourself, where can I find the main strands of my staging, what characters interest me, what is important? In the course of a closer involvement I noticed that, in the final analysis, the poet seems rather unimaginative. He keeps evoking the laws the old dramatists enacted, he juggles with these academic rules, between alleged audience taste and the things happening in his immediate surroundings. But he is never willing to open himself to unforeseen developments, which might bring him to new ideas. On the contrary, he is quite happy when the things he observes around him gibe with what’s already in his libretto, so that the audience will recognize what it sees, and he won’t be placing any unreasonable demands on anybody. He almost slavishly subjugates himself to all of this, in hopes of getting the next commission for a libretto. He claims he is looking for something new, but in fact he is in constant fear of anything unfamiliar.
Does he then influence the action, or does he remain a consumer of the actual events?
His intervention does not take place until the last third of the play, at the place where Selim’s attempts to lure Fiorilla away from Italy keep breaking down, and the participants in the real situation can’t come up with anything that might move their lives forward. Then he contrives an intrigue to make sure everything remains as it was. He doesn’t animate the participants to enter into an existential chaos but rather to indulge in a bit of play acting that he himself enjoys and which doesn’t offend bourgeois tastes. At this moment, where the people see no way out, and where perhaps there is a danger of Fiorilla actually running away, shooting herself or doing something else, he covers his bets and creates an extorion story to remind Fiorilla what it means to have the floor of material security suddenly pulled out from underneath her feet. The poet is profoundly frightened of being unemployed and no longer loved by the general public, and he scurrilously transfers this anxiety to Fiorilla.
With her conduct, Fiorilla risks losing the security of her material existence?
This shows how clever and detailed this libretto is, because it isn’t until the end of the drama that we find out that Fiorilla comes from a lower social stratum, and that her marriage with Don Geronio has landed her among the upper crust, where she plays her role in Neapolitan society with a sizable portion of pride and vanity. Divorce would be pure horror for her; as the guilty party, she would receive no alimony and would probably have to go back to living with her parents in a fisherman’s hut. Zaida, Selim’s former innamorata, experiences something similar, being rescued at the last minute just as she is sentenced to death. She has no alternative but to join the Gypsies. The two women are related to one another in their pride. Zaida behaves like a class conscious Near Eastern princess. She absolutely cannot accept being insulted by a guttersnipe like Fiorilla, and regards herself as the favorite of an Ottoman ruler.
Is Fiorilla your favorite character?
I think she is a mysterious woman, very much driven by her moods, so that we might suspect that a high level of innocence is concealed within her. But she goes about things very calculatedly, in some moments even rather maliciously. Fiorilla plays off the men around her against one another. Not just her husband and her paramour Selim, but also her admirer, Don Narciso. I still think this all happens because of her moodiness; she is, in the truest sense of the word, a cappriciosa. With this kind of behavior she even runs the risk of losing the sympathy she enjoys with us, the audience.
In a duet, Fiorilla accuses Don Geronio of being unjust, as everyone knows that she loves him. And Rossini seems to believe her.
I believe her, too. I show that at an early moment in the production. Fiorilla has just been taken by surprise during her rendez-vous with the Turk. Her husband walks in on her, and she simply turns the situation around by making Don Geronio kiss Selim’s garment. This way she forces him down on his knees. Musically, this moment leads into a grand, slow ensemble, in which I hear the say Fiorilla also pauses to reflect. This gives us a chance to show that she has similar feelings in this situation to Norina’s after she has slapped Don Pasquale in the face.
The first act is dominated by the attraction of the unfamiliar. In the second, those two worlds become embroiled in an irreconcilable conflict. How do you handle this?
The first act is dominated by the first collision, in which people open themselves up and reveal an interest in one another. Even if the parties bump up against each other, they initially try to comprehend what is going on in the mind of the other. And then the second act begins with a conversation between the two men, who suddenly find themselves sitting there as if in the Cold War, unable to negotiate with one another. Accordingly the big duet between Fiorilla and Selim, completely unlike their scene in the first act, is determined by the maxim of “this far but no further”. And the tension is no longer erotic but rather fundamental. Because they cannot endure this, Selim and Fiorilla escape this time into a melancholic, no longer so heated embrace. Here, too, even the music takes on a somewhat cute and conventional character. It is typical Rossinian wit that at this moment where the couples sink into each other’s arms, the music keeps moving toward the dangerous borderline to monotonous prettiness. Three such situations come about in this opera: the reuniting of Zaida and Selim in the first act finale, the embrace of Selim and Fiorilla after their dispute and the reconciliation of the husband and wife Geronio and Fiorilla at the end of the drama.
Do Fiorilla and Selim form the focal point of the story?
Over and over again, the piece concentrates on the encounters and altercations of these two. They keep coming at one another from different directions like a dog and a cat trying to see if there is some way they might play together. Actually these are always the explosive and thrilling moments that release a great deal of energy, but they also tell us of an almost bourgeois self-satisfaction.
The erotic revelations do play a significant role in this opera?
Yes. And they always take place without the poet. The striking thing is that the erotic encounters always go right past him. As if he had a razor-sharp feelfor it. He seems not to perceive the way in which the erotic element is a driving force in real life. He wants to have a “tratto del vero”, to recognize reality, but he keeps missing out on it time and again. As if he were a bit prudish.
You once said that “Turco” is a favorite opera for stage directors.
That probably comes from the fact that most stage directors initially develop this great affinity to the poet, as I did, and then later joyfully cast it aside. Not until you get into rehearsals can you really get a feeling for the delicate situation comedy there is in this piece. There is, for example, that moment when the poet conquers his writer’s block and believes he has finally found the ultimate formula, which is why he discusses his plans openly and publicly, paying no attention to the presence of Don Geronio and Don Narciso. After all, we’ve been taking it for granted that the husband has no idea that Narciso is Fiorilla’s lover. But the poet simply blurts out the truth. A fantastic scene, and then these two characters, the betrayed husband and the lover as well... It is very funny to see how Narciso has to justify himself to Geronio. He is forced to say that what they have just heard has nothing to do with the truth, but is rather a figment of the crazy poet’s imagination. And so the poet involuntarily sets these two characters in motion. We stage directors love this piece perhaps especially because Prosdocimo has the same experiences with these characters that we have in rehearsal with the performers when what starts out as a theoretical story begins taking on flesh and blood. You have to keep asking yourself – and this especially has to do with my favorite character, Fiorilla – when are the feelings genuine, and when are they pure calculation? And first and foremost: when does hypocrisy become routine, anchored in the fundamental character of an individual? This takes us to the question of the actor and the theatrical process: in what little cells do we human beings play-act with one another without calling it theatre? In rehearsals, this reminds me of the work with the comedians in Richard Strauss’s Ariadne. When dealing with Zerbinetta and Harlekin, we’re never really certain: are they just playing hackneyed roles, hallowed over the centuries, with one another, or are these two people really involved in a genuine conflict? It’s a similar case with Fiorilla and her husband, in the course of whose marriage certain behavior patterns have developed until they simply orient themselves around some stale routine or other. And suddenly, with the addition of this “Turkish” element, the routines just don’t work the way they used to.
What function does the set have?
One might say we are striving to poeticize the playing space. We begin with a scene that appears quasi-realistic, and only three minutes after the curtain has opened, we experience the first break with this approach: a stranger, namely the poet, disturbs this realistic illusion and takes advantage of this space to open up a new poetic dimension. And the space, which initially doesn’t look like a box of theatrical magic tricks ultimately reveals itself to be just that. It is in the way we use this space before us that the disentanglement of truth and poetry takes place, defined as wish-truth, and here two levels come together, inspiring one another until we can no longer differentiate between what is the wish-image and what is reality.
So the masked ball is a play within a play?
The masked ball is the extreme form of a disguise game, an attempt to slip into a new skin, inspired by the appearance of the Turk. And it is curious that the Turk does not become the wish-projection of the women, but rather that the men suddenly take him as an role model.
Because of the masquerade, Don Geronio then sees his problem doubled: two Fiorillas and two Selims.
In what he goes through, Geronio actually approaches the border to tragedy. I find that the exciting thing about this character, the fact that it keeps rising above the usual cliché of the cheated, moronic husband, the “horned husband” the whole town gossips about. He rather tries to fight his way out desperately, and suddenly he again senses strengths within himself in which he had long since stopped believing. And that’s what’s so beautiful about him.
Interviewer: Annedore Cordes
English translation by Donald Arthur
© Bavarian State Opera