17 September 2008

A Fate Worse than Death

Rossini's opera, The Siege of Corinth--L'assedio di Corinto, is not an experience to be undertaken lightly, say, the way one would go blithely to one's seventeenth or twenty-seventh performance of Barbiere. Even when it was written, in 1820, audiences stayed away in droves, possibly because it was entitled Maometto II, somewhat lifted from someone else's opera, and possibly because it was pretty awful.

Maometto told the story of the 1470 siege of Negroponte and its capture from the Venetians, but even in Venice--or especially in Venice--it was not much appreciated. The story is vaguely that of Anna Erizzo, daughter of the Venetian commander, with whom the tyrant -besieger, Maometto
(brooding operatic portrait to the right), becomes smitten. Anna Erizzo's story filled Venetian propaganda after the capture, and she was said to have taken her own life rather than submit to his brutal lusts. (It may or may not be of interest to note that rape is not reliably recorded among his more unattractive characteristics.)

It is true that after the capture of Negroponte, the women, children, and boys under the age of 18, were taken off as slaves, but there never was an Anna Erizzo. The Venetian commander Paolo Erizzo was killed before dawn on the final day of the siege. All men of military age, about eight hundred, were beheaded after the capture. More had been killed, a few escaped. The loss of the women and children was its own tragedy, and documents survive of men like Eustachio who, although able to track down and ransom his wife and some of his children, was grieving ten years later for the two daughters still missing. But with the exception of
Dialogues des Carmélites, tragedy in opera is not like tragedy in real life and Anna needs little sympathy.

Six years after Maometto flopped, Rossini reissued it in French, and with ballets, as The Siege of Corinth (which Maometto had beseiged, briefly and without violence in 1458). It was an immediate hit. Europe had been following the 1826 siege of Messolonghi (where Byron died of malaria in 1824) and the massacre there of the women and children who had tried to escape. There had also been the 1822 siege and massacre at Chios.

A couple of passages from the Baltimore Opera program illustrate the general tenor of the opera.
Anna and Paolo Erizzo have become Pamira and Cléomène. It begins:
In the vestibule of the Senate palace, the men of Corinth are ready to defend their city (“Signor, un sol tuo cenno”), but Cleomene, the governor, tells his people that their situation is hopeless: the Turk Maometto II refuses to relent in his siege of the city (“Del vincitor superbo di Bisanzio”).

and ends:

As the men march off to fight, Pamira and the women pray again, readying themselves for death (“L'ora fatal s'appressa”), even as the Turks are heard exulting in victory. Maometto enters triumphantly hoping at last to gain Pamira, but she threatens to kill herself if he approaches. With a roar, the building crumbles, revealing the city consumed in flames, as the Turks slaughter the people of Corinth .

This time the opera worked, audiences wept in droves for tragic oppressed Greece, and everyone, especially Rossini, was quite gratified.

We were in Negroponte the other day, now Halkis, trying to identify aspects of the siege. In the years before and after 1900, the city fathers of Halkis went to uncommon trouble to eliminate all traces of medieval fortifications, and it is now difficult to envision what must have happened. With one exception:

Looking to the north, you can see where Nicolò da Canale sat with the Venetian fleet that August, out of danger, but not out of the sound and sight of the besieged. Mehmed-Maometto was besieging Negroponte as vengence for da Canale's stupidly gratuitous siege and massacre of Ainos in 1468. But da Canale's Negroponte behavior duplicated what happened earlier, when the Venetian fleet waited off-shore at Patras in August 1466 and so enabled the slaughter of Jacopo Barbarigo and his troops, and the impalement of Michali Rallis.

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