A Subtle Sequel: Rossini's 'The Turk in Italy'

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woo-1648-turco mainIn the world of modern movie making, sequels can be seen as a blessing, or a bane -- and the line between the two can be a thin one.

In the 1980s, for example, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Harrison Ford hit it big with Raiders of the Lost Ark, creating an entire franchise. Yet many questioned the wisdom of a rather more grandfatherly Indy turning up in 2008's Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.  And there are other examples of sequels falling flat:  Jaws II, the third Terminator movie, and Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace come to mind.

Still, despite the pitfalls sequels can bring, it's easy to see the appeal -- especially in the profit-obsessed world of Hollywood studios. Why pay a lot of bothersome creative talent for new ideas when you can take an old premise, tweak it a little, and hit the box-office jackpot all over again? Thinking in those terms, the sequel scheme -- or scam -- makes a lot of sense.  And the idea certainly wasn't born in Hollywood.

In 1814, Gioachino Rossini came up with a comic opera called Il Turco in Italia -- The Turk in Italy.  At the time, Rossini was among the most popular and prolific opera composers in Europe, and it seemed that everything he wrote immediately turned to gold. But the reaction to The Turk in Italy was decidedly cool.

That's because the year before, Rossini had a smash hit with a comedy called L'Italiana in Algeri -- The Italian Girl in Algiers. The titles of the two works make it sound like Rossini took the first opera and simply reversed its premise to come up with a new one -- and that's basically what he did. So it's no wonder that the ticket-buying public felt a bit shortchanged.

In retrospect, Rossini may have created a new opera out of an old story, taking an artistic shortcut in the process. But he also did something that's rare in the world of modern-day sequels: He used the recycled premise to create an entirely different sort of work.

The Italian Girl in Algiers is a brilliant comedy, full of sparkling melodies, blockbuster solo arias and strings of slapstick scenes that are laugh-out-loud funny.

The Turk in Italy, on the other hand, has a different set of strengths. Musically, it relies less on arias than on complex ensembles -- duets, trios and even a quintet.  Dramatically, the opera draws more than its share of laughs. But, like many fine operatic comedies, it also has more than a few uneasy moments. The opera's laughs often come at the expense of its less fortunate characters, who appear flummoxed and emotionally disoriented. Their dilemmas may seem outwardly silly, but the feelings underlying them go beyond comedy, combining banter and confusion with a sense of helplessness that at times gives the opera's humor a disturbing edge.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents The Turk in Italy from the 2016 Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro, Italy, the composer's hometown.  Bass-baritone Erwin Schrott stars as Selim -- the Turk in question -- alongside baritone Nicola Alaimo as his rival Geronio, and soprano Olga Peretyatko as Fiorilla, the willful young woman they're both pursuing.  The production is led by conductor Speranza Scapucci. 

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