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8.660329-30 - ROSSINI, G.: Siege de Corinthe (Le) [Opera] (Regazzo, Cullagh, Spyres, Sala, Ramos, Poznan Camerata Bach Choir, Virtuosi Brunensis, Tingaud)
Gioachino Rossini (1792–1868)
Tragédie-lyrique in Three Acts
Mahomet II, leader of the Turks – Lorenzo Regazzo, Bass
When in 1824 Rossini was contracted to go to Paris, French grand opera was in a state of grave crisis. The Opéra had not succeeded by its own endeavours in filling the void left by the departure of Gaspare Spontini, so Rossini was required to write new operas. Even so, he struggled much more than might be supposed. The reasons for Rossini’s difficulties, however, lay not in the composer’s personality, as is alleged time and again in writings about him, but solely in the genre itself. For, long before Rossini’s arrival, it had been confronted by aesthetic demands which were, in part, mutually exclusive. On the one hand opera, as distinct from spoken theatre, remained biased towards classical conventions, so that the starting-point of an operatic plot had to be “quick, unexpected, believable and happy” according to the formula devised in 1826 by the leading dramatist of the Empire, Victor-Joseph Étienne de Jouy. But by the same token “historical truth” was increasingly required of an opera libretto.
This literary category of truth was closely related to the “truth of expression” which, according to this, was achievable only if the dramatic situation set to music was itself credible. But believable historical tragedies rarely end happily, and the classical solution, of pulling from the theatrical box of tricks a deity at the end and allowing this deus ex machina to resolve the conflict, militated against the clear demand for historical verisimilitude. That is how, as early as 1807, de Jouy explained himself in the foreword to his libretto for Spontini’s opera La vestale, so that at the end the heroine, contrary to all historical truth, is saved by the deity.
De Jouy’s attempt at justification describes exactly that intermediate position which, on the whole, is applicable to Spontini’s tragédies-lyriques. On the one hand the tragédie-lyrique of the Empire, such as the later grand operas of the July monarchy, was already orientated towards the category of “true history”, while on the other hand it remained inclined towards the dramaturgical conventions which de Jouy had understood as “concessions”, as demanded by the “genre of opera”—and to that end maintained that it was critical that a “terrible catastrophe” should not be allowed to take place “before the very eyes of the audience”.
Spontini had only once contravened the conventions of the genre and composed an opera with a tragic ending, in the French first version of Olimpie in 1819. Here the female protagonist, in a hopeless situation, stabs herself at the end of the opera with the same dagger which her mother had used previously to take her own life, in order to escape a forced marriage to the murderer of her father.
Admittedly this 1819 version still did not seem to be reasonable to its spectators: the opera was harshly criticised and already after its eighth and final performance the press reported on a new version in which the shocking double suicide was to be removed and the action to have a happy ending. It was not the French authors, however, who implemented this solution but the musical man of letters ETA Hoffmann who was summoned from Berlin to help and who adapted the libretto to have a happy ending. To this end he resorted to exactly the same theatrical trick which de Jouy had used in La Vestale. At the end, the statue of a god reveals that the rival of Olimpie’s lover was the real murderer, so that she can no longer be happily united with her lover. Doubtless this version conforms to the genre but it in no way conforms to the demand for historical and reasonably expressive “truth”. But for Rossini it was this final version of Olimpie which was the work of reference to be considered definitive. To that end Rossini collaborated with the theatrical reformer Alexandre Soumet in order to adapt for the French stage his Italian opera Maometto II of 1820 with the title of Le Siège de Corinthe.
The parallels between Spontini’s Olimpie and Rossini’s Maometto II are obvious: both works feature a heroine torn between her love for a foreign conqueror and loyalty to her homeland, and in both operas the point is that, at the end, the heroine’s marriage to the respective usurper should be averted. So the authority of a usurping domination becomes a central theme—in Spontini it is the mother and in Rossini the father, both of whom guide the respective protagonists back to the proper path of patriotic duty. Both operas end with the protagonists’ public suicides.
Rossini’s decision to go with the first version of Maometto II of 1820, with its tragic finale, represents a conscious attempt once more to present at the Paris Opéra a historical subject with a tragic ending. Furthermore the decision to entrust the French reworking of Maometto II to the poet of tragedies Alexandre Soumet, who was inexperienced in the field of opera, must come across as an expression of a desire for musico-theatrical reform. Soumet was considered to be a reformer of the theatre; his stipulation that French theatre, fossilized in its rigid classical conventions, should align itself with the German model, and above all with Schiller, caused a particular sensation, and it was no coincidence that it was Schiller who supplied the model for Rossini’s later opera Guillaume Tell.
Soumet wrote the new sections of the French version of Le Siège de Corinthe, especially the new closing scenes. Alongside him was Giuseppe Luigi Balocchi, who was responsible for the transformation of the sections borrowed from the Italian version and of their adaptation into music. The finale of the first Italian version concentrates entirely on the tragedy of the female protagonist, whose suicide prompts an extensive final aria. Soumet also retains the suicide of the heroine, but adds to it a closing ensemble, which is set within the context of a tableau of the blazing city of Corinth. Just like Olimpie before her, Pamyra appeals once more to her lover. In his setting Rossini does away with this closing scene and his version ends with the coup de théâtre tableau of the sacking of the city and its going up in flames.
This solution, in which the tragic fate of an individual is immaterial to the collective demise, undoubtedly points towards the catastrophe finales of later grand operas. In so doing Rossini renounces the heroine’s story-line in favour of an incisive closure to the terrible scene, even though until then it was this personal story that had carried the entire dramaturgy of the opera. Just as Soumet’s adaptation aimed to embed the individual tragedy of the heroine within the historical action, so Rossini’s musical version concentrated entirely on the whole panorama of the historical downfall.
The fact that Rossini was able to retain a large part of the original music of Maometto II was due to the fact that he had written it under the direct influence of Spontini’s opera Fernando Cortez, which he had rehearsed in Naples in January 1820. So the characteristics of French opera—such as the heroic sound of the arias, the musical characterisation of both peoples through orchestral “colouring” or the developing structural nature of the musical numbers in big scenes—were already present in the earlier work. In any case Rossini had to cut back on Italian vocal virtuosity in favour of the characteristic declamatory nature of the French singing style, to replace individual aria movements with French recitatives, shorten the first act considerably and conversely extend the second act of the Italian opera into acts two and three of the French version. In general what results from the reworking is a suppression of the private tragedy of love and a heightened re-evaluation of the historical action, carried for the most part by the choruses. The fact that this action is relocated from the Venetian colony of Negroponte to the Greek city of Corinth is, on the other hand, of secondary importance and can be accounted for by pragmatic political topicality: the Greek struggle for freedom from the Turks found many sympathisers in the Paris of the 1820s.
Rossini replaced the original final aria of the heroine Pamyra with some new text and the inclusion of further material in the wedding tableau at the beginning of Act 2. On the other hand the finale of Act 2 was newly composed. The first part of Act 2 consists of an introductory scene from a multi-movement trio in Italian form, which portrays the protagonist as a typical “volatile heroine” torn between her love for the foreign conqueror and loyalty to her fatherland—personified here by Mahomet’s Greek rival Néoclès. The resolution of the conflict is realized in a stark staged effect: the back curtain is raised to reveal a view of the citadel on whose walls the Greek defenders can be seen. The sight of this inspires Pamyra’s decision to fight on the side of the Greeks, which is achieved musically by a two-movement choral tableau: in its martial style the first choral movement characterizes the true heroism of the Greeks, which captivates the heroine and with it brings about the reversal of the action. Musically the ensuing Turks’ chorus of revenge is in the idiom typical of Rossini’s choral finales, with an orchestral waltz and closing stretto. With Pamyra’s decision to align herself with the Greeks and so against an alliance with the conqueror Mahomet the personal plot-line is concluded by the end of the second act—the third act is entirely in accordance with the historical narrative.
A dramaturgical as well as musical addition here is the newly composed scene of the consecration of the banners shortly before the end of the opera. Characterized structurally as an aria for Hiéros, it is already essentially a case of a dialogue in which the chorus becomes an independent partner. The collective story-line is obviously underscored by the soldiers’ closing march and in their extensive instrumentally accompanied departure into battle. The scene can be regarded as the model for later choral scenes in grand opera, such as the Rütli Oath tableau in Rossini’s Guillaume Tell or the consecration of the swords in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots.
There now follows the prayer of Pamyra, who has remained behind, which Rossini had inserted here from the trio of the original first act—it has the sole dramaturgical function of padding out the time during which the decisive battle is supposedly taking place off-stage. The actual catastrophe itself, however, is set extremely precisely. In his musical setting Rossini eliminated the librettist’s closing ensemble, which explicitly allowed for Pamyra’s suicide, and portrayed a tableau of destruction in an instrumental finale in which the city of Corinth goes up in flames.
Against the backdrop of the conflicts in the tragic finale of Spontini’s Olimpie Rossini’s strategy can be interpreted as a conscious avoidance of a finale whose fulcrum and crux would once again have been the heroine’s suicide carried out on-stage, for in 1826 this was deemed to be a violation of the generic conventions of tragédie-lyrique. Rossini’s conception turned out to be prophetic, for the increased dominance of the historical narrative at the very end of the opera and the gamble of having a tragic finale were to become genre-defining traits in the following decade.
Corinth: 1458. A lobby of the palace of the senate.
 Cléomène, the governor of Corinth, has gathered together the Greek soldiers in order to discuss with them the continuation of the almost hopeless insurgency against the Turks. The young officer Néoclès and the old custodian of the graves Hiéros counter the despondent attitude of the rest of the soldiers and are able to inspire them to a course of resistance. Cléomène had hoped for this decision and they all swear to stand or fall for the honour of their fatherland.
 In order to put in place a protector for his daughter, in the event of his death, and to honour an old promise, Cléomène would like to marry her to Néoclès. But Pamyra confesses that she has pledged herself to a certain Almanzor in Athens. All three are filled with consternation. But a sudden attack by the Turks prompts the two men to leave Pamyra behind; Cléomène gives her a dagger with which she should take her own life rather than fall into the hands of the enemy.
 The Turks, followed by their commander Mahomet, make a triumphant entrance into the main square of Corinth.
 Mahomet stipulates that the art treasures of the conquered city should be spared. As the commander of an invincible people he regards himself as ruler of the world.
 Because of his love for a Greek girl, Mahomet exercises clemency, but the captured Cléomène indignantly refuses to allow the last of his resisting troops to surrender. Pamyra hurries by with her confidante Ismène and recognizes Almanzor as their enemy Mahomet. Mindful of the fact that Pamyra is promised to Néoclès, Cléomène abruptly rejects Mahomet’s proposal to save Greece for the price of her hand. Pamyra is torn between the wishes of her lover and the demands of her father. In the end she allows herself to be carried off by Mahomet.
 Pamyra is confused by her situation and prays to her dead mother. The Turkish women promise her that her marriage to Mahomet will be good for the Greeks’ fate.
 Mahomet approaches Pamyra tenderly and believes that Cléomène will finally relent. Pamyra is becoming convinced that only death can free her from her dilemma between loyalty to her fatherland and her oath of love. The Turkish followers summon both to be married and Mahomet invites her to enjoy the pre-nuptial celebrations.
 Ismène realizes her mistress’s plight and hopes that Pamyra’s father will relent. The chorus asks her to dry her tears.
– All attend the lengthy dancing which precedes the actual wedding.
 The priests and the odalisks call upon the prophet Mohammed in a hymn. Then the ceremony is disrupted by a disturbance. Néoclès, who wanted Pamyra to be returned to the Greeks, has been taken prisoner by Mohamet’s confidant Omar. When asked who he is, Pamyra quick-wittedly passes him off as her brother.
 Néoclès recognizes Pamyra’s loyalty to her own and Mahomet, moved, backs off. Mahomet, wants Néoclès to be a witness to the forthcoming marriage when Omar reports a renewed outbreak of resistance by the Greeks. On seeing the citadel occupied Pamyra decides against Mahomet in favour of her own people. Mahomet rages. His bride and Néoclès are led away together.
The burial chambers of Corinth.
 Néoclès has been able to free himself and Pamyra. Adraste, the confidant of Cléomène, explains to Néoclès that it is all up for the Greeks. Néoclès hears the prayer of the Greek women and Pamyra across the catacombs.
 In an agitated cry to God, Néoclès is torn between despair about their demise and the hope that his people might enjoy a later resurgence. He knows that Pamyra will die by her mother’s grave.
 Cléomène is overjoyed at seeing Néoclès again so unexpectedly, but in his blind rage pushes his daughter away from him. Not until she demands that she be married to Néoclès at her mother’s graveside is Cléomène convinced of her unconditional loyalty. All three call upon God’s divine providence, before they separate in the certainty that they will see one another again in heaven.
 Hiéros, followed by the Greek women and warriors, holds the men back and, illuminated by visionary images, proclaims the final battle. All swear that they will sacrifice their lives for their country.
 While the men hurry towards their last stand, Pamyra and the women prepare themselves for death in prayer.
 Then the murdering Turks storm the burial chambers and as Pamyra evades Mahomet and stabs herself with the dagger, the vault collapses and Corinth can be seen going up in flames.
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