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Bob Bernard's Corner: Opera's First Liberated Woman

Il turco in Italia

By Bob Bernard

Oftentimes a thematic trend can be detected between even the most disparate of well-known opera plots. For example, consider Don Carlo, Il Turco in Italia, and Tristan …What would you say that these three operas have in common? What is the one enduring lesson we can learn from each of these three operas? … I believe it is this: When an old man takes a very young bride … There is going to be hell to pay!


Beverly Sills as Fiorilla

For Don Carlo and Tristan it is the Seventh Circle of Dante’s Inferno [a violent place], but --- thank goodness! --- for Il Turco [The Turk in Italy] it is a merry hell, frequented by well-known characters from the lore of the Italian commedia dell arte (art of comedy) There are:

  • The young, flirtatious wife --- a bit of an air-head, if you will [Fiorilla]
  • The old, feckless --- but still jealous --- husband --- a real wuss [Geronio]
  • The young, lovesick admirer of the flirtatious wife --- sort-of a one-woman Cherubino [Narciso]

But even before these characters go on stage, we know that Il Turco will be humorous just because it was composed by Rossini! From Gravity's Rainbow, the 1973 novel by Thomas Pynchon: “A person feels good listening to Rossini. All you feel like [doing when] listening to Beethoven is going out and invading Poland.” Woody Allen massaged this quote so as to denigrate Wagner. From his 1993 film Manhattan Murder Mystery: “I can’t listen to that much Wagner. I get the urge to conquer Poland.”

Rossini’s idea of fun extended to matters of food. A computer search yielded these Rossini-created recipes:

  • Cannelloni alla Rossini
  • Filet of Sole alla Rossini
  • Pheasant Supreme alla Rossini
  • Stuffed Turkey alla Rossini

Just to tie together Rossini’s fondness for both fun and food, there is the story of Rossini admitting to weeping only three times in his life:

  • Once, with disappointment, when his first opera proved to be a failure
  • A second, with joy, upon hearing Paganini play the violin
  • And a third time, with horror, upon seeing the product of one of his recipes [turkey, stuffed with truffles] fall into the river, while he was on a picnic cruise!

Besides the three characters [Fiorilla, Geronio, and Narciso], Rossini (and his librettist Felice Romani), also put their alter ego (in the form of the poet Prosdocimo) on stage to unite these characters with still another character: the potentate Selim from the (then) exotic land of Turkey. In most productions, the poet Prosdocimo is omnipresent on stage, often helping to keep the action moving, but sometimes breaking the fourth wall of the stage and addressing the audience directly (recall: George Burns would sometimes do this as part of the 1950’s TV series The Burns and Allen Show). Two more characters fill out the cast: Zaida, a former slave, once betrothed to Selim (and still in love with him) and Albazar, another expatriate Turk, joining Zaida in residing with a band of gypsies, who are encamped near the seashore.

The audiences of Rossini’s time knew what to expect from these characters: flirtations, declarations of love, domestic outrages, romantic triangles,  mistaken identities, and --- ultimately --- reconciliation, with the principals affecting an eventual reunification --- Here, that is, of course, Fiorilla with Geronio and Selim with Zaida.

Il Turco premiered in 1814, just about the same time that the King of Siam (Yul Brynner in The King and I) reiterated his ideas on what the relative roles of men and women should be:


“A woman is like a blossom, with honey for just one man. A man lives on honey and must gather all he can. But blossom must not ever fly from bee – to bee - to bee”

So Fiorilla’s entrance aria (here Cecilia Bartoli from Zurich Opera in 2002) marked Fiorilla as opera’s first ‘liberated woman’:


“Non si da follia maggiore dell’amare un solo oggetto“
[There is no greater folly than to love one thing only]

It wasn’t until the 20th century in Paris, where we saw Hanna Glawari in The Merry Widow - enabled by the 20 million francs from her late husband - exhibit similar tendencies, and that such liberation didn’t reach the New World (Yonkers, New York) until mid-century in the person of Dolly Levi  in Hello, Dolly!.

This Liberated Blossom - with a stated intention to flit from "bee to bee to bee" – goes cruising by the docks, and the fleet is coming in! (Stage Director Peter Sellars would likely have Fiorilla in hot pants!) Inevitably, Fiorilla and Selim meet and are attracted to one another. Here from the 1978 New York City Opera [NYCO] performance are the Fiorilla of Beverly Sills and the Selim of Donald Gramm:

          
"He’s very charming!"                                                             "She’s a fascinating creature!”

Matters move along, and they are soon at coffee at the villa of Fiorilla & Geronio. The NYCO production was sung in English, with the translation done by British music critic and scholar Andrew Porter. For the following scene’s clip, the original line of librettist Felice Romani was: “Ammiro di questo gabinetto i ricchi arredi,” which literally translates as something like, "In this boudoir I admire the rich furnishing," but Porter’s translation – in cooperation with Gramm and Sills and the stage direction of Tito Capobianco - made for a titillating PG-rated double entendre:


“I admire the appointment of your … uh … villa.”

All matters, of course, are settled amicably, with the proper pairings re-established. However, even beyond the final curtain, Bartoli’s Fiorilla remains in type, still evidencing a tendency to flirt during the curtain call with the poet Prosdocimo:


“I admire the appointment of your … uh … villa.”

The lesson: So long as older men contrive to marry young women, we should expect recidivistic behavior on the part of the young ladies!

Author: Thomas Lady
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