The Siege of Corinth
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…
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