Reviewed Elsewhere: Larry Wolff, The Singing Turk: Ottoman Power and Operatic Emotions on the European Stage from the Siege of Vienna to the Age of Napoleon.

Michael Berkowitz's picture

Larry WolffThe Singing Turk: Ottoman Power and Operatic Emotions on the European Stage from the Siege of Vienna to the Age of Napoleon. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2016. 504 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-804-79577-7.

In this penetrating study, Larry Wolff suggests not only how operatic representations of Turkish themes and characters might have reflected transformations in perceptions of Ottoman power, but also how – as in, say, Montesquieu’s Lettres persanes, yet closer to ‘home’ – they enabled Enlightened criticism of European ‘reality’. Wolff sells himself short with the pre-emptive defence that ‘this is not a musicological study but rather a study in cultural and intellectual history’. Is that not a considerable, if not the only, part of what musicology is? Perhaps we should simply say this is not a musico-analytical study, for Wolff is not one of those historians who shies away from dealing with music. ... Wolff’s story takes in a commendably grand narrative of European musical and intellectual history that yet does not lack revealing detail. ...
 
Joseph II, in founding the German-language Nationalsingspiel theatre company in Vienna, would enable the part-representation of himself and Enlightened Absolutist magnanimity in the person of Pasha Selim in Mozart’s 1782 Die Entführung aus dem Serail, the most enduring repertoire example of the Turk in opera – albeit not a singing one, for the role is purely spoken. Wolff is especially interesting on the closing vaudeville, ‘an acclamation in favor of the benevolent prince’, who can only ‘passively and silently receive … tribute and might as well be a stone monument to enlightened rule’ (201). The problematic Orientalism of the opera notwithstanding, it remains that Christian convert to Islam who emerges with the greatest credit. Moreover, as Wolff points out, ‘in the vanquishing of Osmin’, the Pasha’s malign servant, ‘it is not Turkishness that has been silenced, for the Turkish instruments, march tempo, and oscillating intervals [a better phrase might have been found there] all return in their clamorous brilliance’ (203) to acclaim him. ...
 
Wolff appreciates, moreover, that the canon is not always the thing, and certainly not always in the way we might understand it. It is at least as enlightening, for instance, to read about André Grétry’s 1783 opera for Fontainebleau, La caravanne du Caire: in the shadow of Die Entführung to us, but not for Louis XVI and Joseph’s sister, Marie Antoinette, or indeed their audience. He reminds us also that, if we think in terms of Handel, Mozart, Rossini, even Grétry, the eighteenth century did not always do so. Librettists receive their due; so do potential librettists ...
 
If librettists, singers and impresarios are properly discussed, so too are alternative composers and contexts. ... Wolff can only begin to scratch the surface here; that, however, he certainly does, and in certain cases, does much more than that. In opening our eyes to the array of material, he performs just as much a service as in more detailed discussion.

Mark Berry, Europan History Quarterly 47, 4 (2017), 805–806.