Book Review : The Singing Turk

We are fortunate that a member of the American Rossini Society who recently reviewed this book by Larry Wolff agreed to share his review with us. It is a lengthy review but well worth reading. You may also read our interview with Professor Wolff in the interview section of the pull-down menu Forum Rossiniano.

The Singing Turk
by Larry Wolff
Stanford University Press, 2016
490 pages

Review by Charles Jernigan

Relations between European society (and the Western world in general) and the Ottoman East (and the Islamic world in general) has been a matter of great interest and often conflict since the era of the crusades, and of course it is a matter which has assumed great importance in our own time. Professor Wolff’s fascinating study takes on one corner of this monumental subject as it was reflected on the operatic stage from Lully’s incidental music for Molière’s comèdie-ballet Le bourgeois gentilhomme in 1670 to Stravinsky’s Rake’s Progress in 1951, but with particular emphasis on baroque opera and on Rossini’s incarnations of “the singing Turk” in La pietra del paragone, L’italiana in Algeri, Il turco in Italia, Maometto II and Le Siège de Corinthe. The first 226 pages of the book concern ‘turkishness’ in baroque opera and Mozart, concentrating on Handel’s Tamerlano and Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail, but with much interesting information and analysis of many other works including the “Turc genereux” segment of Rameau’s Les Indes Galantes, Vivaldi’s Bajazet, Mozart’s unfinished Zaide and works by Gluck, Haydn and others. About 130 pages are directly concerned with Rossini operas and the rest rapidly covers post-Rossini ‘Turkish’ operas by Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi et. al., and there is a short concluding summary.

At times the book’s definition of Turkishness in opera seems to suggest the broad Islamic world, as with operas which deal with the crusades like I lombardi or with Islamic Iberia like Donizetti’s Zoraide di Granata, but for the most part “Turkishness” is coincident with the Ottoman empire from the time of Suleiman the Magnificent’s siege of Vienna (1529) through the early nineteenth century. During this period the complex relations of European countries with the Ottoman world changed constantly and the European view of “Turks” varied from fascination to horror; there were alliances and wars, many of them dependent on inter-European conflicts or accords, for instance France’s alliance with the Ottomans because both opposed the Hapsburg empire.

The book categorizes the diverse ways the Ottoman Turk is treated in opera: as 1) a tragic figure (e.g. Bajazet in Tamerlano); 2) a comic figure (e.g. Mustaphà in L’italiana in Algeri); 3) a generous or forgiving one (e.g. Pasha Selim in Entführung); 4) a raging conqueror (e.g. Winter’s Maometto). As interest in the Ottoman world waned on the European stage, Rossini gave us additional types: the charming Turkish traveler on the ‘grand tour’ (Selim) and the complex and not unsympathetic warrior in love (Maometto II). There are also certain popular plot tropes which are repeated over and over again, particularly the beautiful European female held captive in an Ottoman harem who is rescued by her lover as we have in Entführing and, with a gender reversal, in L’italiana. This frequently repeated plot reflects the real experience of European captives at a time when piracy in the Mediterranean was a normal fact of life, with captives sold into slavery, ransomed or, in the rare case of the female captive, added to the harem.

We also frequently find Europeans disguising themselves or dressed as Turks, a trope which begins with Moliére/Lully, continues with several commedia dell’arte vaudevilles (plays interspersed with songs based on popular melodies) written for fairs in France, and which finds its most famous incarnations in Mozart’s Così fan tutte and several Rossini operas (La pietra del paragone, L’italiana in Algeri and Il turco in Italia). These and other popular plot devices are part and parcel of the “Turkish” operas from the very beginning of a Turkish presence on the European stage to Rossini and beyond.

Dr. Wolff is the Silver Professor of History and Director of the Center for European and Mediterranean Studies at New York University, and as he explains in the book’s Introduction, “This is not a musicological study but rather a study in cultural and intellectual history, exploring how ideas about the Ottoman empire and representations of Turkishness took operatic form” (5). Wolff attempts to place the operas he examines in the context of historical events of the time and place of the opera’s composition. Thus Mozart’s Entführung is seen in relation to the “enlightened absolutism” of Hapsburg Emperor Joseph II as well as within the zeitgeist of a Vienna getting ready to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the decisive defeat of the Ottoman forces of Kara Mustafa by a coalition of Christian European countries in the last siege of Vienna in 1682. By the time of Mozart’s opera, the Viennese and Europe in general no longer worried about an Islamic invasion, and so the time was ripe for the “generous Turk” to reappear under the guise of Pasha Selim, a figure who, as Wolff rightly argues, is really the Emperor Joseph (whose patronage Mozart longed for) presented as a wise and forgiving Turkish despot. Wolff sees Osmin in some ways as a stand-in for the Archbishop of Salzburg whom Mozart wished to escape. In the case of this opera, Wolff’s analysis is multi-layered; he successfully theorizes that it fits the general currents of history at the time and references specific historical figures sub rosa as well as Mozart’s personal trials with the Archbishop.

In the case of Rossini’s “Turkish” operas, the ‘zeitgeist’ argument tries to peg the earlier works (La Pietra, Italiana, Turco) to Napoleonic Europe although Napoleon was suffering his decisive defeat in Russia around the time of the premiere of La pietra del paragone at La Scala. It is clearly more difficult to find close historical parallels in Napoleonic or post-Napoleon Italy for these comedies than it was for Entführung, but Wolff tries nonetheless, in the process rehearsing well known aspects of Rossini’s career such as his political ambivalence as both the composer of “Pensa alla patria” and of the cantata “La santa alleanza” for the conservative Metternich. I believe that Dr. Wolff is much more successful in showing how these operas’ plots and characters fit into long-standing traditions of turquerie. When Count Asdrubale appears as the apparently ‘Turkish’ creditor to test the true friendship of his guests (and especially Clarice), it is part of a long tradition which goes back to the very beginning of “Turkishness” on the musical stage. The buffo Mustafà is likewise part of a long tradition, and the “papatacci” scene, like the scene in Entführung when Osmin gets drunk with Pedrillo and sings of his lust, goes back to seventeenth century vaudevilles where Arlequin tempts Islamic overseers with forbidden wine. The ball in Turkish disguise which leads to the finale of Il turco in Italia is cut from the same cloth. Wolff is also quick to point out the innovations in the plots of both Italiana and Turco (which Romani based on a libretto by Caterino Mazzolà). In the former a woman rescues her captive amante, while Selim is no comic buffoon like Mustafà. Thus did Rossini and his librettists vary and enrich the time-worn plot devices. (I might add that the operatic stage was one place where women could be held in equal, or even more, esteem than men, and that both Isabella and Fiorilla are strong women.)

In Chapters 10 and 11 Dr. Wolff takes on the case of Maometto II and its Parisian reincarnation as Le Siège de Corinthe, both works with a great deal of historical resonance. Mehmed the Conqueror (Maometto II), who ruled the Ottoman empire from 1451 to1481, was of course a historical figure, and his conquest of Venetian Negroponte (today Chalkida in Greece) is historical fact. Even the romance and martyrdom of Anna Erisso has some historical claims to veracity, as it is “…loosely based on the most reputable French classical account of Mehmed’s reign by George Guillet de Saint-George…” (315). Wolff tries to place Maometto II in Napoleonic terms by suggesting that the ambivalence of his character—he is a conqueror but not a hypocrite (like Voltaire and Winter’s Maometto, who is after all the Prophet and not Mehmed the Conqueror). He wreaks destruction, but he is human; he loves; he is both warlike and tender in Rossini’s music. Wolff even briefly compares him to Rossini himself, a “conqueror” and a man in love (with Isabella Colbran, the original Anna). I am not so sure that Rossini had Napoleon in mind when he wrote Maometto II, but the opera does fit Wolff’s argument that the zeitgeist allowed the sympathetic portrayal of a conquering Turk. Wolff also examines the Venice version of the opera with its illogical lieto fine and changes to the character of Maometto.

Le Siège de Corinthe (1826) is a different story, fitting both zeitgeist arguments and specific references to events contemporary to the opera. Certainly the Parisian public was roused to the defense of “European” Greece and the cry to free it from Ottoman rule. Lord Byron had died as he prepared to take part in the battle for Missolonghi, which the Ottomans won after a long siege a few months before the opera’s premiere. The wildly popular Byron had stoked philhellenism in several poems including “Maid of Athens” and part of Don Juan, and Wolff points out that the title of Rossini’s opera almost surely came from “The Siege of Corinth,” a minor Byron poem of 1816. Wolff argues that Le Siège’s Mahomet becomes a philhellene too, and of course Rossini and his librettists add the character of Hiéros, a prophet who looks to future Greek freedom while recalling the glorious ancient past at Thermopylae and Marathon from the perspective of a siege which took place in the 1400’s. This time, Rossini was very intentionally tapping into the sentiment of his time and probably with a view to the specific event of Missolonghi.

Naturally, Wolff’s study relies for the most part on libretti, and in this sense his book is one of comparative literature, putting the written text in the context of its time, but although he is not a musicologist, he does not ignore the music. Indeed, one of the most interesting aspects of his book is his detailed analysis of specific operas including Italiana, Turco, Maometto and Le Siège. For all of these Rossini works (and many other operas) he explores in detail voice type and especially the use of “Turkish” Janissary music in the operas and in European music in general. Rossini, of course, makes extensive use of Janissary percussion including triangles, big bass drums, bells and so forth and weaves it with great skill into his scores. Indeed, for him, this percussion section is often referred to as the “banda turca.” Contemporaries sometimes complained of the ‘noisiness’ which such instruments brought to his music, but it is undeniable that some of the excitement and brio of his operas comes from the use of these ‘turkish’ instruments. In one of the most beguiling parts of the book, Wolff explains that the famous finale of Act 1 of L’italiana in Algeri is really a Janissary banda put in the mouthes of the singers when they imitate the sounds of “Turkish” percussion. Janissary music had been part of many “Turkish” operas before Rossini, but only his genius both used it and satirized it as the characters themselves become instruments of the band.

Although about a fourth of Dr. Wolff’s book relates directly to Rossini operas, the Rossini enthusiast will find much of interest in the other parts (there are references to Rossini throughout) which show how these Rossini operas fell into a long-standing tradition, but also how Rossini transformed the tradition and made it his own. I might add that although Prof. Wolff’s love of Rossini and great respect for his genius comes through on many pages, some of his most interesting insights involve little known operas of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Some—like Peter von Winter’s Maometto—have been seen onstage by Wildbad’s faithful opera-goers; others are completely unknown to me, at least, and are all the more fascinating for that reason. This is a scholarly book, with 53 pages of notes and almost 30 pages of index. It does not need to be read all at once, but it offers fascinating insights and a new lens for looking at familiar and not-so-familiar operas, and for those interested in Ottoman history and eighteenth century European history, it is a treasure-trove of information. In that sense, it offers us context which both enriches the opera enthusiast’s knowledge and is as up-to-date as today’s news.