How Europeans once saw themselves through Turkish eyes at the opera.
This summer the Rossini Opera Festival—dedicated to producing the works of composer Gioachino Rossini and located in the composer’s hometown of Pesaro on the Adriatic Sea—presented the comedy Il turco in Italia (The Turk in Italy), first performed in 1814 but nowadays rarely staged. In the Europe of 2016, deeply polarized over Middle Eastern Muslim refugees and the longstanding presence of Muslim immigrants, this light-hearted comic opera hits some very provocative notes: it tells the tale of a traveling Turk, the vocally glamorous, irresistibly seductive Prince Selim, who comes to Italy, as if on vacation. It’s an opera that, even as it entertains us, compels us to reflect seriously about the nature of our current cultural conflict and the very different sorts of imagined encounters that have formed a part of Western culture.
Under the influence of the Enlightenment Turks became figures of interest with whom Europeans could ultimately identify.
Operas about Turks were actually a staple of the performance repertory throughout the eighteenth century and into the early nineteenth century, when Rossini became the last important composer to feature singing Turks in his operas. Under the influence of the European Enlightenment Turks became figures of interest with whom Europeans could ultimately identify; they could recognize in Turkish scenarios their own political ambivalences (concerning absolute government), their own social anxieties (about the hierarachy of the sexes), and could even explore a European sense of self as mirrored in the figure of the singing Turk.
The most famous opera about Turks has always been Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio, first performed in Vienna in 1782, but it’s just the tip of the operatic iceberg, one of many comic operas on the theme of European women held captive in Turkish harems (other notable examples include Rameau’s Generous Turk, Favart’s Three Sultanas, Gluck’s Pilgrimage to Mecca, Jommelli’s Liberated Slave, Vogler’s Merchant of Smyrna, and Grétry’s Caravan of Cairo). Captivity was always treated as a comical subject, because the unfortunate captive sopranos were all ultimately emancipated in the last act by the magnanimity of the enlightened Turkish pashas. It’s a subject that, if closely examined, would not seem so comical today: a sort of sexual slavery was the premise on which these libretti were elaborated. And such slavery was not actually unheard of in Mozart’s time and Rossini’s time, when Mediterranean ships might be seized by pirates and the passengers sold into captivity. The United States actually fought a war against Muslim piracy based in North Africa in the first decade of the nineteenth century—Thomas Jefferson’s so-called “Barbary” war which left as its legacy the phrase in the US Marines hymn that invokes “the shores of Tripoli.”
In Rossini’s Il turco in Italia there were no pirates or captives. The Turkish hero arrived in Italy as an enlightened traveler, meeting with Italians on their own terms and winning them over (along with the public) by his own charms. Arriving by sea, Prince Selim salutes the Italian peninsula “Bella Italia, alfin ti miro” (Beautiful Italy, at last I gaze upon you) in a charismatic basso declamation which is immediately subject to elaborate ornamentations that express his admiring perspective. First performed at a moment of political crisis in 1814, with the collapse of the Napoleonic kingdom of Italy, Rossini let Italians see themselves as mirrored in the perspective of an imaginary Turk, just enough of an outsider to allow Italians to take fresh pleasure in the beauty of their own land.
Rossini let Italians see themselves as mirrored in the perspective of an imaginary Turk.
The central romance in Rossini’s opera is between Prince Selim and the married Italian woman Fiorilla who entirely disregards her own husband to pursue, with the visiting Turk, what must constitute the most protracted musical flirtation in the history of opera. She begins by inviting him for “coffee”— with all the other characters seeming to understand that “coffee” constitutes an entirely libidinous entertainment. Prince Selim gallantly declares that in Turkey one would build a magnificent temple to such beauty as hers, and she coyly replies: “Qualche serraglio forse?” (A seraglio perhaps?) Thus, the seraglio which, in Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio, appears as an alarming menace to the heroine’s virtue, Rossini invokes entirely in the spirit of flirtation. The cultural distance between the amorous pair becomes the substance of their mutual infatuation as Fiorilla sings:
Siete Turchi, non vi credo.
Cente donne intorno avete:
Le comprate, le vendete
Quando spento è in voi l'ardor.
(You are Turks, I don't believe you.
You have a hundred women around:
You buy them, you sell them
When your ardor is spent.)
The second-act duet offers an even more brilliant exposition of their cultural encounter, as each insists that people make love completely differently in Turkey and Italy. Rossini’s music, however, shows them finishing each other’s phrases and echoing each other’s ornamentations in such a manner as to suggest that they make love in exactly the same way!
Fiorilla: In Italia certamente non si fa l'amor così.
(In Italy certainly one does not make love like that).
Selim: In Turchia sicuramente non si fa l'amor così
(In Turkey definitely one does not make love like that).
In the end Selim returns to Turkey, and Fiorilla remains with her Italian husband, but the cultural encounter between them, which forms the substance of the whole opera, concludes with each having learned something from the other, or the Other with a capital O, as Edward Said would have written it in his classic book Orientalism. This opera is not quite a work of Orientalism, however, as Rossini’s Europeans really need to see themselves through the eyes of Prince Selim, need his basso voice to harmonize their own musical lines. His glamorous presence in Italy helps them to understand their own dramatic identities.
The Rossinian perspective of harmonious difference, conciliating the Muslim and Christian shores of the Mediterranean, would become increasingly untenable in the nineteenth century, and the figure of the singing Turk would largely disappear from the operatic repertory after Rossini. By the same token, it remains challenging for us, in 2016, to appreciate the comical Rossinian perspective on a Turk in Italy, at a moment when Muslim immigrants and refugees are generating fierce cultural anxiety across the European continent.
Rossini created one last singing Turk in the 1820s, the most audacious creation of all: the figure of Sultan Mehmed II—Mohammed the Conqueror—who, back in the fifteenth-century had conquered Constantinople, conquered Greece, and sought unsuccessfully to invade Italy. He could not be the subject of comedy, and Rossini composed two serious treatments, one in Italian for Naples and one in French for Paris. The French version—Le siège de Corinthe (The Siege of Corinth)—was one of Rossini’s very last operas, before he gave up operatic composition altogether at the age of 37, and his Sultan Mehmed—Mahomet in French—would be the last important singing Turk in European opera. Boldly, the Rossini Opera Festival will produce this work next summer in August 2017 in the exquisite Teatro Rossini which was built in Rossini’s own time. As we continue to live in a world traumatized by Western relations with the Muslim world, by what Samuel Huntington has called “the clash of civilizations,” Rossini’s operatic perspective offers us the chance to review the very intricate history of this cultural encounter, which was, back in Mozart’s time and Rossini’s time, vocalized by the figure of the singing Turk.