Maometto Secundo

by wjw on July 29, 2012

The other night I found myself at the Santa Fe Opera watching, and more importantly listening to, Maometto II, a Rossini opera, performed with its original score for the first time since 1820.

The opera wasn’t a big hit in its first performance in that year.  It’s completely sung-through, which was pretty radical for the time, and there are no places where the music stops to allow the audience to cheer and applaud.  The performers spend a lot of time singing about things that are happening offstage, which limits the dramatic possibilities.  And a lot of the drama is sort of forced— I mean, there’s no particular reason why the heroine sticks around at the end to commit suicide, she just does.

Rossini gave the story a happy ending for a version of the opera that premiered in Venice some years later— Venice, a party town, didn’t like downer endings.  And then he cannibalized the story and a lot of the music for an entirely different opera, The Siege of Corinth.  Both these versions have been performed, albeit rarely, in the 20th century.  But the SFO has returned the opera, for the first time ever, to its original form.

Maometto Secundo, translated out of Italian, would be Mehmet II, the Turkish sultan who conquered Constantinople in 1453.  Since the usual role of Turkish rulers in opera is to menace Christian virgins (see Escape from the Seraglio and Rossini’s own L’Italiana in Algeri), I wasn’t expecting the character to be anything but a stock mustache-twirling villain, but it turns out that Rossini made him pretty interesting.

We open in Negroponte, a town on the Aegean island of Euboea under siege by Mehmet.  (This places the action in 1470, assuming anyone cares.)  The governor, Erisso, is worried about the safety of his daughter Anna, and suggests that she’d be better protected if she married the warrior Calbo.  Since Calbo is played by a contralto in pants, I kept expecting Anna to sing, “But Dad, Calbo is a chick!”, but apparently the Venetians were very liberal in these matters.

(There is no particular dramatic reason for Calbo to be sung by a woman.  I mean, the plot doesn’t tell us that she’s a female in disguise, or anything.  I assume that the Neapolitan company for which Rossini wrote the opera had a contralto under contract who needed a part, and Rossini obliged.  In any case, Patricia Bardon sang the role very well.)

Anna is forced to confess that she doesn’t want to marry Calbo because she’s in love with someone named Uberto.   But she’s chagrined to find out that Uberto is an imposter.  In fact, Uberto is Maometto, who has been scouting Venetian cities in disguise.

Oops!  Anna’s in love with the enemy!

Anna, Calbo, and Erisso sing about this in a trio that goes on for half an hour.  After which the Turks attack—  and the defenders are overcome by Mehmet’s elite and highly athletic corps of ninjas!

(I bet you didn’t know that the Turkish sultan employed a corps of ninjas.  Neither did I, till they cartwheeled onstage.)

What the ninjas did was add a whole lot of Awesome to the production.  Because— dude!—  that’s what ninjas do.

And there’s even more Awesome when a hole is blown in the wall, and Maometto himself walks into the action!

Things are pretty bleak for the defenders.  Erisso and Calbo have been captured, probably because they delayed their exit in order to sing a half-hour trio.  Maometto proposes to torture them to death pour dècourager les autres, until captive Anna arrives.

Turns out that Maometto is sincerely in love with his Christian virgin.  He offers to marry her, make her Sultana, and liberate Erisso and Calbo.

Well, you can’t get more fair than that!  But Anna is a patriotic virgin, and even though she’s in love with the sultan, she can’t bring herself to offer herself to him.  And Maometto, unlike every other sultan in opera, is not disposed to rape.  So he gives her some time to think it over, gives her his signet ring as a guarantee of his sincerity, and charges off to finish off the retreating Venetians.  Exit, with ninjas.

Anna uses the sultan’s signet to liberate Erisso and Calbo.  She and Calbo get married, but only in spirit, because no clergymen happen by.  Calbo and Erisso charge off to die in the fighting, leaving Anna to commit suicide.  (I thought the boys abandoning their liberator was pretty shabby— I mean, how much worse off would she be if she went with them?)

Turns out that our heroes rally the Venetians and defeat the Turks.  Which leaves Maometto pretty well cheesed off.  He and the ninjas confront Anna, who for some reason has not used the sultan’s ring to liberate herself.  The sultan still can’t quite bring himself to kill her, and while he’s singing about this problem, she runs onto his sword and kills herself.  (I don’t know how Rossini avoided the temptation, but Anna does not in fact sing an aria after she’s dead.)  Mehmet sings a final dirge, and the opera’s over.

The music, it must be said, is very good.  It’s Rossini after all.  The first act is too long, and pretty static until the ninjas show up.  The second act is more compact, more dramatic, and filled with beautiful music.  Maometto is shown as being genuinely in love, and rather more honorable than the Venetians, for all that he’s quite bloodthirsty.

Well acted, well sung, and the staging was reasonably imaginative.  Plus there are ninjas!

And hell, it hasn’t been performed in damn near 200 years.  Guido-Bob says, Check it out.

DorjePismo July 30, 2012 at 1:01 pm

“Give me a laundry list and I will set it to music.” Years after he started writing opera seria, he visited Beethoven, who told him that The Barber was the best thing he ever wrote, and he should write more of them. Good advice, but too late. The Stabat Mater is quite good, though, and the Petite Messe Solennelle isn’t shabby either, although the original use of two pianos and harmonium instead of orchestra sometimes has one looking around for the monkey with the tin cup.

Hélène August 2, 2012 at 8:24 am

Did you see the DVD of Il barbieri di Seviglia with Dario Fo’s staging ? No ninjas but great fun!

drakes August 3, 2012 at 11:43 am

Kudos to you, sir, for describing an opera in a way that even an uncultured buffoon such as myself would consider it!

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