A Subtle Sequel: Rossini's 'The Turk in Italy'
ACT ONE begins near a gypsy camp outside Naples. We meet Prosdocimo, a local Poet, who's in search of ideas for a new romantic comedy. He's hoping to find plenty of material in the events about to unfold. He also stays around to comment on the story -- even prodding the action along when it threatens to get bogged down.
The poet first encounters the young woman Zaida. She's a former Turkish slave, now living with the gypsies. Back home, she fell in love with her master, a prince named Selim. She was actually engaged to marry him -- until some sort of palace intrigue got her in trouble and she fled to Italy. Now, she's encouraged by news that a Turkish prince is about to visit. Maybe, she thinks, he can put in a good word for her back home.
Naturally, the Prince who arrives is Selim himself -- but the first woman he encounters isn’t Zaida. Instead, he meets the young Italian woman Fiorilla. She's married, to a guy named Geronio. But as we meet her, she says it's a shame for any woman to limit her love to only one man.
When Fiorilla encounters Selim, they're both on the prowl for romance. After a brief chat, they go off together hand in hand, each convinced that the other will prove an easy conquest.
Seeing this, the poet has plenty of stuff for his romantic comedy. He's about to get more, as we next meet the young man Narciso, another of Fiorilla's admirers. In fact, Fiorilla's husband Geronio hasbeen jealous of Narciso. Now, both men are envious of Selim.
Things get more complicated when Geronio walks in on a cozy meeting between Fiorilla and Selim, with Narciso watching the confrontation from a distance. When Fiorilla introduces Geronio as her husband, Selim is astonished and quickly draws a dagger. Geronio isn’t exactly the heroic type. He's terrified and backs down, though does he show a bit of gumption when Narciso pipes up and tells him he should be ashamed of himself.
The Poet then finds Geronio alone, brooding. He also scolds the unhappy husband, and tells him to get it together -- saying Fiorilla might treat him better if he'd show a little spine for a change. Geronio gives it a shot. He confronts Fiorilla, flatly refusing to put up with any further infidelity. But his courage doesn't last long, and she quickly puts him back in his place.
That night, at the seashore, Selim's ship is at anchor, near Zaida's gypsy camp, and the two finally meet. When Selim recognizes Zaida, they seem overjoyed to see each other. But the happy reunion doesn't last long.
When Fiorilla and Narciso show up, finding Selim with Zaida, Fiorilla accuses Selim of falsely seducing her. He actually seems to feel guilty about it, while Fiorilla and Zaida are quickly at each other's throats. The men try to intervene, while the poet Prosdocimo eggs everyone on; he's thrilled with the lively finale to his new story's opening act.
In ACT TWO, Geronio and Selim are together in a tavern, drinking. Maybe they can work out their differences. Selim tells Geronio that in Turkey, there's an old custom: When a Prince wants another man's wife, he simply makes a fair offer and buys the woman from her husband. Geronio tells Selim that there are also old customs in Italy. For example, it's customary for Italian husbands to offer boorish Turkish princes a quick punch in the nose. Their discussion gets nowhere fast -- though it does lead to a brilliant, rapid-fire duet. After that, the two men leave in opposite directions, intent on fighting a duel.
Fiorilla then shows up. She's been invited to the tavern by Selim, and he soon returns. But he has another woman on his arm -- his former fiancée, Zaida. The two women ask him to make up his mind. Which one does he want? He says he can't decide, so Zaida basically tells Fiorilla, "you can have the bum." With Fiorilla and Selim alone together, they swear to love each other forever. But nothing's going to be quite that easy.
There's a costume ball on the calendar. Selim plans to attend, and use the festivities as a cover to abduct Fiorilla. The poet Prosdocimo has been coaxing the action along, hoping to gain material for a play. Now, he tells Geronio about Selim's plan.
Meanwhile there's Narciso, who also wants Fiorilla. Narciso decides he'll go to the ball dressed as Selim, and try to take Fiorilla for himself. And Zaida will also be attending. She'll dress as Fiorilla, hoping Selim will abduct her by mistake.
Not surprisingly, the ball is a scene of mounting confusion, beginning when Narciso encounters Fiorilla and, disguising his voice, pretends to be Selim. That's no small feat, given that Narciso is a tenor and Selim is a bass!
The highpoint is a brilliant comic quintet involving Selim and Fiorilla; Narciso and Zaida -- who are dressed as Selim and Fiorilla -- and the unfortunate Geronio, who can't even tell which woman is his own wife!
Eventually, Selim winds up back with Zaida, leaving Fiorilla alone and unhappy. Seeing that, Prosdocimo has a plan of his own, to keep the story going. He urges poor Geronio to put on a manly front, and pretend to dump Fiorilla for good.
Geronio agrees, and writes Fiorilla a forceful letter -- saying he never wants to see her again. Reading it aloud, Fiorilla is thunderstruck. Now she's truly alone. In a long solo scene, she desperately pours out her feelings, and decides to go home to her parents in disgrace. Sensing an opening, Geronio moves in to comfort her. Before long, the two are back together.
As the opera ends, husband and wife have reconciled, while Zaida and Selim are cheerfully on their way back to Turkey. Even Narciso is satisfied. Observing the two loving couples, he vows to stop pursuing other men's wives. As for Prosdocimo, the opportunistic poet, he's pleased to have a happy ending for his new story.