The Singing Turk
Ottoman Power and Operatic Emotions on the European Stage from the Siege of Vienna to the Age of Napoleon
CHAPTER TWELVE: The Decline and Disappearance of the Singing Turk: Ottoman Reform, The Eastern Question, and the European Operatic Repertory
Bellini, Zaira, Parma 1829
The chorus for Christian prisoners receiving word of their imminent freedom:
Chi ci toglie ai ceppi nostri? Who removes our shackles?
Chi ci rende all’alma luce? Who brings light to our spirits?
The chorus builds crescendo to the exclamation “O contento!”
Giuseppe Donizetti Pasha, Mecidiye March, 1839
Composed as an anthem for Sultan Abdülmecid I who came to the throne in 1839:
Rossini, Mecidiye March, also for Sultan Abdülmecid, composed in 1852:
Verdi, Il Corsaro, canceled after three performances in Trieste, 1848
The tenor corsair leads the chorus against the Turks:
—listen from 5:30
All’armi, all’armi e intrepidi
cadiam, cadiam sull’empia Luna.
To arms, to arms, and intrepidly
Let us fall upon the impious Crescent.
The subject of “Le Corsaire”— a failure as opera in the 1840s— would make its mark as ballet in the 1850s, at the time of the Crimean War, with a thoroughly unmenacing and comical pasha, and definitively restaged in St. Petersburg by Petipa in the 1860s:
Ivan Zajc, Nikola Šubić Zrinski, 1876
The call to battle against the Turks “U boj, u boj!” became a major moment in the development of Croatian national opera at a time when such moments had already disappeared from Italian opera.
The same battle cry (“U boj, u boj!”) could also be extracted from the opera— and from its Ottoman historical framework— and appropriated for modern patriotic Croatian occasions, as in this performance from the period of the collapse of Yugoslavia and the emergence of Croatian independence:
Verdi, Otello (Milan 1887)
The defeat of the Turks takes place off stage before the curtain goes up on Act One.
Otello enters exultant at the Venetian victory:
“Esultate, l’orgoglio musulmano sepolto è in mar.”
(Rejoice, for Muslim pride has been buried at sea.)
Later in the first act, when the soldiers brawl, Otello will ask: “Am I among Saracens? Or has the Turkish rage been transfused in you [la turchesca rabbia è in voi trasfusa]?” In fact, however, Turkishness was banished to the margins of the opera and, by the later nineteenth century, disappeared almost entirely from operatic composition in the major opera houses of Europe.