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.
For 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.