Larry Wolff

The Siege of Corinth an opera by Gioachino Rossini, pro­duced by La Fura dels Baus, at the Rossini Opera Fes­ti­val, Pe­saro, Italy

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The Siege of Corinth an opera by Gioachino Rossini, pro­duced by La Fura dels Baus, at the Rossini Opera Fes­ti­val, Pe­saro, Italy, Au­gust 10–19, 2017

Two days af­ter the Is­lamist at­tack in Barcelona on Au­gust 17, a cho­rus of Greek war­riors sang out from a stage in the lit­tle town of Pe­saro on the Adri­atic coast of Italy: “We take up the sword; the Mus­lims are climb­ing our ram­parts.” They were met by a cho­rus of Turk­ish sol­diers, at the open­ing of the next scene, singing of con­quest: “The rapid flame, the mur­der­ous sword, spread hor­ror ev­ery­where.” The opera was Le siège de Corinthe (The Siege of Corinth), Gioachino Rossini’s 1826 mas­ter­piece about the strug­gles of a Chris­tian com­mu­nity to re­sist a Mus­lim as­sault—an oper­atic drama­ti­za­tion of what Sa­muel Hunt­ing­ton called “the clash of civ­i­liza­tions” be­tween Chris­tians and Mus­lims.

The Siege of Corinth is rarely per­formed today but was pre­sented this sum­mer at the Rossini Opera Fes­ti­val in the town where he was born in 1792. The pro­duc­tion was de­signed by the Barcelona com­pany La Fura dels Baus, and the fi­nal per­for­mance be­gan with a dec­la­ra­tion of sym­pa­thy for the tragedy that had just struck the city of Barcelona “and the whole civ­i­lized world.” The opera is per­haps Rossini’s bold­est ven­ture; with it he dared to en­gage our deep­est pas­sions and most un­com­fort­able anx­i­eties. While we tend to as­so­ci­ate him with the comic en­ter­tain­ment of his most pop­u­lar work, The Bar­ber of Seville, The Siege of Corinth presents a very dif­fer­ent and much darker story.

The opera is dom­i­nated by Mehmed II, the Ot­toman sul­tan known to his­tory as Mehmed Fatih—the Con­queror—for his world-chang­ing siege and con­quest of the Byzan­tine cap­i­tal of Con­stantino­ple in 1453. Mehmed went on to con­quer Greece, and Rossini dra­ma­tized that vic­tory in The Siege of Corinth. Though the Pe­saro pro­duc­tion was set in a postapoc­a­lyp­tic fu­ture, with the Greeks and Turks com­pet­ing for drink­ing wa­ter, the cos­tum­ing of the sul­tan—Ma­homet in the French li­bretto, per­formed by the renowned Ital­ian basso Luca Pis­a­roni—was the one spec­tac­u­larly “Turk­ish” as­pect of the pro­duc­tion. He wore a long red silk robe, steam­punk per­haps in its styling, but with in­ti­ma­tions of Ori­en­tal­ism. Pis­a­roni told me that he loved the robe; it sug­gested blood, pas­sion, and power, giv­ing him the pres­ence he needed at the cen­ter of the opera.

The orig­i­nal cos­tumes of the 1826 Paris pro­duc­tion, de­signed by the French artist Hip­polyte Le­comte, lav­ishly cre­ated the Turk­ish de­tails of Ma­homet’s ap­pear­ance from the jew­els of his great white tur­ban, through the long blue tu­nic and gold sleeves, down to the red pan­taloons and Turk­ish slip­pers. Pis­a­roni, while re­hears­ing this sum­mer, tweeted “awak­en­ing my in­ner vil­lain for Ma­homet”—but the gor­geous mu­sic that Rossini wrote for him makes Ma­homet the charis­matic star of the show. “I am go­ing to make the universe sub­mit to my power,” he sings, not just a con­queror but the as­pir­ing con­queror of the world, a Mus­lim warrior with daz­zlingly or­na­mented vo­cal lines.


Rossini’s gen­er­a­tion such a con­queror was in­stantly rec­og­niz­able. The tur­baned Ot­toman sul­tan on the stage in Paris in 1826 al­lowed the French pub­lic to re­visit their mem­o­ries of the dom­i­nant po­lit­i­cal fig­ure of their life­times, Napoleon Bon­a­parte, who had been de­feated at Water­loo in 1815 and had died on St. He­lena in 1821. The fan­tasy of univer­sal con­quest, though dressed up in Ot­toman cos­tume, be­longed to the very re­cent his­tory of Europe.

Rossini him­self was cel­e­brated as a Napoleonic con­queror by Stend­hal, who wrote:

Napoleon is dead; but a new con­queror has al­ready shown him­self to the world; and from Moscow to Naples, from Lon­don to Vi­enna, from Paris to Cal­cutta, his name is con­stantly on ev­ery tongue.

Rossini was more beloved and ac­claimed than Beethoven in the 1820s, and ap­plied him­self to The Siege of Corinth as an Ital­ian in­ter­loper trans­form­ing French opera, which he would do once again with Wil­liam Tell in 1829, the last of his nearly forty op­eras, be­fore mys­te­ri­ously giv­ing up oper­atic com­po­si­tion for the re­main­ing forty years of his life.

Pe­saro is a small beach town, and in Au­gust there are beach va­ca­tion­ers as well as oper­a­go­ers fill­ing the ho­tels. There is a Rossini house mu­seum, a jew­el­box Rossini theater, and the most beau­ti­ful Baroque Sephardic syn­a­gogue in Europe. At Pe­saro you’re about two hun­dred miles from the Bos­nian bor­der on the other side of the Adri­atic, and Bos­nia would have been part of the Ot­toman Em­pire dur­ing Rossini’s child­hood, when Mus­lim Bar­bary pi­rates still raided the coasts of Italy.

The schol­arly re­con­struc­tion of Rossini’s orig­i­nal scores has been a part of the mis­sion of the fes­ti­val since its found­ing in 1980, en­cour­ag­ing a Rossini re­vival in which the full ex­tent of his mu­si­cal ac­com­plish­ments has been grad­u­ally re­dis­cov­ered, sum­mer af­ter sum­mer. The year 2017 marked the pass­ing of a ti­tanic gen­er­a­tion of Rossini mu­si­col­o­gists with the deaths of the Ital­ian con­duc­tor Al­berto Zedda and the Univer­sity of Chicago pro­fes­sor Philip Gos­sett, who were ded­i­cated to pro­duc­ing crit­i­cal edi­tions of his works. Both were reg­u­larly in­voked and re­mem­bered at Pe­saro this sum­mer. Zedda had writ­ten about strug­gling with the Ital­ian pub­lisher Ri­cordi over per­for­mance edi­tions of The Bar­ber of Seville as far back as the 1950s, when that was the only Rossini opera most oper­a­go­ers knew. In 1969, La Scala pro­duced The Siege of Corinth in Ital­ian for Bev­erly Sills and Mar­i­lyn Horne, com­bin­ing Ital­ian and French ver­sions ac­cord­ing to what Gos­sett de­scribed dis­ap­prov­ingly as “the kitchen sink prin­ci­ple.” This edi­tion be­came the ve­hi­cle for Sills’s Metropoli­tan Opera de­but in 1975, a pub­lic sen­sa­tion and mu­si­co­log­i­cal mish­mash.

In re­cent years the Metropoli­tan Opera has done its first-ever pro­duc­tions of Rossini’s Ar­mida for Renée Flem­ing, Le Comte Ory for Juan Diego Flórez (Pe­saro’s fa­vorite tenor), and La Donna del Lago for Flórez and Joyce DiDonato. Last sea­son’s tri­umphant Wil­liam Tell with Ger­ald Fin­ley was the first in more than eighty years, with a re­vival of the 1990 pro­duc­tion of Semi­ramide ar­riv­ing next win­ter. Thanks in large part to the mu­si­co­log­i­cal work that has been done in Pe­saro over the last thirty-eight sum­mers, the oper­atic world now knows Rossini and ap­pre­ci­ates his ge­nius bet­ter than at any time since the height of his suc­cess in the 1820s.

Rossini was so thor­oughly en­gaged by the fig­ure of Mehmed II that he ac­tu­ally cre­ated three ver­sions of the opera, first in Ital­ian for Naples in 1820 as Maometto Se­condo, then re­vised in Venice in 1822, and fi­nally with a French li­bretto for Paris in 1826. Roberto Ab­bado, who con­ducted The Siege of Corinth in Pe­saro, told me that this was the most au­then­tic ver­sion of the score since the 1826 premiere. The opera fo­cuses on the tragic ro­mance be­tween the Mus­lim sul­tan and a Chris­tian wo­man who be­longed to the lo­cal com­mu­nity that he was about to con­quer. In the orig­i­nal Ital­ian ver­sion that com­mu­nity was the Vene­tian colony in Greece at Ne­gro­ponte (today Chalkis), so the hero­ine was Ital­ian; in the French ver­sion, how­ever, the con­quered city was Corinth and the hero­ine’s com­mu­nity was Greek.

In each case she was in­fat­u­ated with Mehmed, but ul­ti­mately re­jected him out of pa­tri­o­tism, even though he of­fered to share his throne and power with her so that she might rule the universe at his side. In Paris as in Naples, she de­fi­antly stabbed her­self at the end of the opera, though in the Vene­tian ver­sion Rossini of­fered the pub­lic an as­ton­ish­ing al­ter­na­tive end­ing in which the sul­tan did not con­quer the city, the hero­ine did not kill her­self, and the Vene­tians of Ne­gro­ponte seemed to live hap­pily ever af­ter—a com­pletely coun­ter­fac­tual his­tory of the Ot­toman Em­pire in which Greece evaded the Ot­toman con­quest.

Op­eras about Turks on the Euro­pean stage be­longed to a highly im­por­tant

but now largely for­got­ten tra­di­tion that re­flected the in­tri­ca­cies of Euro­pean– Ot­toman re­la­tions and Chris­tian– Mus­lim en­gage­ment in the Age of En­light­en­ment. Such op­eras were con­stantly com­posed and per­formed in the eigh­teenth cen­tury—the most fa­mous be­ing Mozart’s Ab­duc­tion from the Seraglio—but Rossini’s Ma­homet in 1826 was the last im­por­tant singing Turk to take the stage. Later nine­teenth-cen­tury op­eras fea­ture var­i­ous ex­oti­cisms—Bellini’s an­cient Druids and Verdi’s an­cient Egyp­tians, Puc­cini’s Ja­panese geisha and Chi­nese princess—but there are no Turks at all in the stan­dard reper­tory af­ter Rossini.

Rossini cre­ated a se­ries of singing Turks in L’ital­iana in Al­geri (The Ital­ian Wo­man in Al­giers), Il turco in Italia (The Turk in Italy), and the sev­eral treat­ments of Maometto-Ma­homet. The com­poser’s close col­lab­o­ra­tor was the spec­tac­u­lar Ital­ian singer Filippo Galli, who made a spe­cialty out of Rossini’s Turk­ish roles, cre­ated for the hy­per­mas­cu­line basso reg­is­ter. Turk­ish­ness also be­came a part of Rossini’s iden­tity, pub­lic and pri­vate. As a com­poser he rel­ished the Turk­ish “Janis­sary” per­cus­sion of drums, bells, and cym­bals that had been ear­lier em­ployed by Gluck, Haydn, and Mozart, and this be­came so much as­so­ci­ated with Rossini that he was car­i­ca­tured in Paris wear­ing a tur­ban and bang­ing on a big drum—“Sig­nor Tam­bourossini,” por­trayed as a Turk be­cause his or­ches­tral com­po­si­tion was so vi­o­lently clam­orous to the del­i­cate French ear. Swiss mu­si­col­o­gist Reto Müller, work­ing on the pub­li­ca­tion of the com­poser’s cor­re­spon­dence, has dis­cov­ered in the Rossini fam­ily let­ters that Rossini made his own fa­ther into a Turk with the nick­name “Mustafa”—the same name as the com­i­cal Turk­ish tyrant in L’ital­iana in Al­geri.

The his­tor­i­cal Mehmed, who con­quered Greece and even sent an army to Italy (land­ing at Otranto in 1480), saw him­self as an heir to an­cient Greece and Rome. The sul­tan was fas­ci­nated by Re­nais­sance Italy, and he brought the Vene­tian painter Gen­tile Bellini (brother of the more cel­e­brated Gio­vanni Bellini) to Con­stantino­ple. In The Siege of Corinth, Ma­homet ini­tially ap­pears as the most civ­i­lized of con­querors, re­strain­ing his sol­diers from the de­struc­tion of Corinth, ad­jur­ing them to re­spect the Greek mon­u­ments. He sings of his am­bi­tion to achieve glory and im­mor­tal­ity through the arts as well as by arms—and Rossini gave these sen­ti­ments a sonorously beau­ti­ful and dig­ni­fied or­ches­tral ac­com­pa­ni­ment.

Ma­homet, ac­cord­ing to Ab­bado, ap­pears in the opera as a cul­tured and re­fined fig­ure. Pis­a­roni char­ac­ter­izes him as a “dreamer” who pro­poses to Pamyra, the Greek wo­man he loves, that they should re­store the glory of Greece to­gether un­der Ot­toman rule. The his­tor­i­cal Mehmed, af­ter all, was the sul­tan who not only turned the great domed Byzan­tine church of Ha­gia Sophia into a mosque, but made its Byzan­tine ar­chi­tec­ture into the model for fu­ture Ot­toman mosques.

In 1821, the year af­ter Rossini’s first Ital­ian ver­sion, Maometto Se­condo, was per­formed in Naples, the Greek War of In­de­pen­dence broke out. It sought to undo Mehmed’s fif­teenth-cen­tury con­quest of Greece and pro­vided the per­fect oc­ca­sion for Rossini’s shift­ing of the scene to Corinth in his French ver­sion of 1826. Lord By­ron, the most glam­orous of the Ro­man­tic po­ets and roughly Rossini’s con­tem­po­rary, went to Greece to fight against the Turks and then fell sick and died at Mis­so­longhi in 1824; his fatal phil­hel­lenism in­spired his con­tem­po­raries to em­brace the Greek cause.

The Siege of Corinth, though nom­i­nally still set in the fif­teenth cen­tury, was sud­denly all about the cur­rent Greek war, and one critic queru­lously felt that the opera was too much like jour­nal­ism: “If the new work is a bul­letin on Greece, then print it in the Moni­teur. If it is an opera, then per­form it.” There had prob­a­bly never been an opera that spoke so di­rectly to the con­tem­po­rary head­lines, and one might see The Siege of Corinth in 1826 as op­er­at­i­cally dis­turb­ing in the man­ner of John Adams’s Death of Klinghof­fer (1991), which was based on the sen­sa­tional news story of the Pales­tinian Lib­er­a­tion Front’s 1985 hi­jack­ing of the Achille Lauro cruise ship and shocked the pub­lic by cre­at­ing mu­si­cal beauty around ter­ror­ist vi­o­lence.

When Rossini trans­formed Maometto Se­condo into The Siege of Corinth, he added an­other basso, the Greek el­der who ral­lied his peo­ple against Ma­homet, re­mind­ing them that their ances­tors had fought at Ther­mopy­lae and Marathon. Rossini com­posed an an­them of Greek in­de­pen­dence mod­eled on the French “Mar­seil­laise,” and the Paris pub­lic of 1826 sup­pos­edly jumped to its feet to join in the pa­tri­otic en­thu­si­asm of the Greeks on stage. At Pe­saro this sum­mer, the Greek el­der brought mem­bers of the au­di­ence up to the stage to join in the martial fer­vor against the Ot­toman en­emy—and this res­onated un­com­fort­ably with the de­nun­ci­a­tions of mil­i­tant Is­lam in the me­dia dur­ing the days fol­low­ing the Barcelona at­tack.

For ex­am­ple, Mat­teo Salvini, the leader of Italy’s rad­i­cal right North­ern League, which has been dem­a­gog­i­cally hos­tile to­ward Mus­lim and African im­mi­grants and refugees, tweeted af­ter Barcelona: “Crush the worms with­out pity!” Ear­lier this year he re­sponded to Don­ald Trump’s at­tempts to in­sti­tute a Mus­lim ban by tweet­ing: “What @POTUS is do­ing on the other side of the ocean, I’d like to do in Italy. An in­va­sion is un­der­way, it needs to be blocked.”

When I asked Roberto Ab­bado about The Siege of Corinth as a war of cul­tures, he told me that his own fam­ily name was of Ara­bic ori­gin from Moor­ish Spain, and that “the fam­ily— in­clud­ing my fa­mous Un­cle Clau­dio— of­fers an ex­am­ple of the in­te­gra­tion of di­verse cul­tures within Europe . . . . This in­te­gra­tion is pos­si­ble, and I be­lieve in it.” Rossini’s op­eras sug­gest that he him­self was drawn to the pos­si­bil­ity of such in­te­gra­tion on the stage, but am­biva­lent about where it was likely to lead. It is the com­poser’s pre­rog­a­tive to cre­ate har­mony, and some of his singing Turks al­lowed him to imag­ine a sort of cul­tural in­te­gra­tion in his oper­atic scores.

In Rossini’s 1814 opera Il turco in Italia, the Ital­ian wo­man Fio­r­illa and the Turk­ish trav­eler Se­lim are ir­re­sistibly at­tracted to each other. She sings, flir­ta­tiously, “In Italia cer­ta­mente non si fa l’amor così” (in Italy cer­tainly one does not make love like that), and he replies in kind, “In Turchia si­cu­ra­mente non si fa l’amor così” (in Turkey def­i­nitely one does not make love like that). Rossini’s mu­sic, how­ever, has them tak­ing up one an­other’s lines and or­na­men­ta­tions with such daz­zlingly com­pat­i­ble in­tri­cacy that it’s per­fectly clear, in the spirit of com­edy, that they make love in ex­actly the same way. In the tragedy of The Siege of Corinth, how­ever, when a Turk­ish sul­tan and a Greek wo­man are in love, there is no place in their geopo­lit­i­cal universe for the ro­mance to be re­al­ized, and part of what is thrilling about the opera is the im­pos­si­bil­ity of their love across the cul­tural chasm cre­ated by Euro­pean his­tory. Ma­homet wants to pre­serve the Greek mon­u­ments of Corinth but ends up de­stroy­ing the city in spite of him­self:

Eh bien! que le soleil, té­moin de ma vic­toire,

De­main cherche Corinthe et ne la trouve pas.

[Well then, let the sun, the wit­ness of my vic­tory, look for Corinth to­mor­row and find noth­ing there.]

He has be­come the Turk that they all feared from the be­gin­ning, the de­stroyer of cities, and af­ter driv­ing the wo­man he loves to kill her­self be­fore his eyes, he is left alone and des­per­ate. He sings “what a tem­pest sud­denly roars around us,” and Rossini, who cre­ates the or­ches­tral tem­pest, makes him strug­gle against the storm with a high note at the top of his reg­is­ter, where a basso re­ally has to strug­gle.

Ma­homet, the last singing Turk to dom­i­nate the oper­atic stages of Europe, has Rossini’s mu­si­cal sym­pa­thy as he stands sur­rounded by the mur­der­ous and de­struc­tive vi­o­lence that he him­self has brought about. He has con­quered Corinth, but Pis­a­roni felt him to be “a de­stroyed man who has lost ev­ery­thing.” And as we in the au­di­ence hes­i­tated over whether we too could ex­tend our sym­pa­thy to Ma­homet, we rec­og­nized the ge­nius of Rossini and the power of opera to il­lu­mi­nate the trau­matic cul­tural con­flicts still roar­ing around us in the twenty-first cen­tury.

Luca Pis­a­roni as the Ot­toman Sul­tan Ma­homet II and Nino Machaidze as the Greek Chris­tian wo­man Pamyra in Gioachino Rossini’s The Siege of Corinth at the Rossini Opera Fes­ti­val, Pe­saro, Italy, Au­gust 2017

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