Dramma buffo in 2 acts
Libretto: Felice Romani, after Caterino Mazzolà’s libretto for Franz Joseph Seydelmann’s opera (1788)
First performed: Teatro alla Scala, Milan, 14 August 1814
Today, Il turco in Italia is one of the most commonly performed Rossini operas. – well below The Barber of Seville or La Cenerentola, perhaps, but respectably frequent.
Its clever device of a playwright who sets the characters in motion to create the drama appeals in an ironic, meta-theatrical age.
The original Milanese audience, though, didn’t take to it. They took one look at the title, and thought that Rossini had served them up rehashed Italiana in Algeri. Rossini’s reputation for borrowing music from his flops didn’t help.
The opera was performed sporadically until the mid-19th century – then vanished until revived in 1950 with Maria Callas.
The poet Prosdocimo is in a fix. He has to write an opera buffa – but he can’t find a plot. Inspiration! He’ll create the story himself. He already has some of the characters: Zaida, a gypsy girl abandoned by her lover, the Turkish prince Selim Damelec; and Don Geronio, an ineffectual, elderly man married to the much younger Fiorilla.
The Poet will create a happy ending for Zaida: a Turkish prince is coming to Italy, and he will help her return home. Plot twist! The Turkish prince is Selim – and he and Fiorilla are instantly attracted.
The Poet is delighted by this unexpected coup de théâtre – but Fiorilla’s husband and admirer are less enthralled.
Fiorilla invites Selim round for coffee and flirtation, and are discovered by the other men. Once the Turk has gone, Fiorilla and Geronio quarrel, and Fiorilla announces that she’ll take a thousand lovers and go crazy night and day.
Selim has arranged to meet Fiorilla on the seashore at night. There, all the threads of the plot come together: instead of meeting Fiorilla, Selim meets Zaida, his former lover; Fiorilla is beside herself with rage; and Geronio and Narciso turn up. The two women come to blows. “What a finale!” says the delighted Poet; “oh, what a rumpus it will be.”
Selim tries to buy Fiorilla from Geronio.
It’s a brisk patter duet, but the Poet thinks it delays the action. Fiorilla stages an encounter between Selim, Zaida and herself. Zaida leaves in a huff (if that’s too soon, in a minute and a huff), whereupon the other two quarrel and then make up.
The Poet tries to steer the drama towards a happy ending. He warns Geronio that the pair will escape, masked, from a party. The cuckolded husband will go wearing the same costume as Selim, and retrieve Fiorilla. Narciso overhears the plot, and decides to follow suit.
Meanwhile, the Poet has ensured that Zaida and Fiorilla are wearing the same costume. During the confusion, Selim pairs off with Zaida, and Fiorilla with Narciso. Geronio knows that one of the women is his wife – but which one?
The Poet reveals that Narciso was Fiorilla’s lover, and suggests a sham divorce. Fiorilla is ashamed, and regrets her loose ways.
All is resolved, even if not exactly as the Poet planned. Fiorilla and Geronio are reunited, and Selim and Zaida sail away to Turkey. And the Poet has his play, with a happy ending.
Il turco is almost a problem-play: a comedy that gradually turns serious, and ends in ambiguity. It’s a cooler, more detached work than the big three Rossini comedies (Barber, Cenerentola, Italiana), but lacks their warmth and sense of fun.
Similarly, much of the score is good, workmanlike Rossini, tuneful and attractive, but seldom hits those operas’ level of comic inspiration. The highlight is undoubtedly the Act II quintet, at once brilliant and disturbing.
Like the Poet, we seem to stand at a distance and observe the characters. None of them are wholly likeable; Fiorilla doesn’t excite our sympathy like Angelina (in Cenerentola) or our admiration like Isabella (in Italiana); nobody is as resourceful as Figaro; and the opera lacks a comic villain like Mustafà, Dr. Bartolo, or Don Magnifico.
“The leading characters,” Charles Osborne (Bel Canto Operas of Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini) observes, “fail to come completely to life.” True; but they’re deliberately “character types” – the foolish husband, the unfaithful wife, the gallant, the Turk – with naturalistic emotions: the lovers’ embarrassment; Geronio’s confusion and despair at the ball; and Fiorilla’s shame in her Act II aria.
It’s that clash of the conventional and the true that gives Turco its particular tone.
The Poet discovers that his characters don’t always behave according to dramatic convention. He sets the plot in motion, and organizes the deception at the ball and the reconciliation of husband and wife, even feeding Geronio his lines – but the characters refuse to be puppets. Narciso gatecrashes the ball, in the same costume as Selim and Geronio, for instance, while the final encounter between Turks and Italians isn’t what the Poet wanted.
Even the traditional lieto fine (happy ending) of Italian comic opera doesn’t quite ring true. Sure, the characters sing the opera’s moral – “Remain contented: live happily, and tell everyone that a mistake is slight, if it springs from the most delightful one of all: love” – but will the characters remain contented? Will Fiorilla be happy married to a much older husband?
Modern productions often undercut the moral. Cesare Lievi’s 2002 production for Zurich showed Fiorilla (Cecilia Bartoli) and Narciso (Reinaldo Macias) puddling fingers behind Geronio’s back, while Christof Loy’s 2014 Munich staging apparently doesn’t end terribly well for either couple.
- Nicola Rossi-Lemeni (Selim), Maria Callas (Donna Fiorilla), and Nicolai Gedda (Don Narciso), with the Teatro alla Scala orchestra & chorus conducted by Gianandrea Gavazzeni. Milan, 1954. CD: EMI; Naxos.
- Cecilia Bartoli (Fiorilla), Alessandro Corbelli (Don Geronio), Michele Pertusi (Selim), and Ramón Vargas (Don Narciso), with the Teatro alla Scala orchestra & chorus conducted by Riccardo Chailly. Milan, 1997. CD: Decca.
- Cecilia Bartoli (Fiorilla), Ruggero Raimondi (Selim), Oliver Widmer (Poet), Paolo Rumetz (Don Geronio), and Reinaldo Macias (Don Narciso), with the Opernhaus Zürich orchestra & chorus conducted by Franz Welser-Möst. Zurich 2002. DVD: ArtHaus Musik.