Just back from a second look at the COC’s production of Rossini’s Maometto II. This time I was sitting on the orchestra level and a bit closer which helps with this production. Basic impressions remain the same as opening night; great singing, visually spectacular, but I did have some additional, and related, thoughts about both the libretto and the production.
First the libretto’s treatment of the title character. It’s schizophrenic. One minute he’s muttering about horrible tortures, death and fire. The next, he’s presented as a model enlightened ruler who desperately wants to show mercy to his captives and he absolutely doesn’t try to force Anna sexually. He’s a sort of Ottoman “gentleman”. He’s also a bit mixed up in that he seems to be offering Anna a role as some sort of Western style queen or empress which is, of course, nonsense for a 15th century Ottoman sultan with hundreds of women in his harem.
So what if we think about the opera as really being about the choices facing Anna? Because, curiously for the “little woman” in an opera full of powerful men, she has a surprising amount of agency. The choices facing her appear simple. Her father (and, ultimately, her husband) offer honourable (i.e. chaste) death, which she eventually chooses. It’s a simple, stark option. Maometto, on the other hand, is offering something else but what exactly? I think this maybe what David Alden is exploring at in the beginning of Act 2. Anna faces the juxtaposition of the female chorus in burqas and the belly dancer character. Some have criticised this as unPC exoticism. I’m not so sure. The dancer is clearly the weird death shaman of Act 1 and will reappear unambiguously as Death herself later in the act. I think what we are seeing here (maybe) is Anna being shown the choice Maometto is actually offering; seclusion, both as seen in the presentation of the female chorus and in the dancer offering her cast off rags to Anna as a veil, and an exotic kind of sexuality represented here by the cliché of the halter topped belly dancer. And it’s juxtaposed explicitly with death. It’s a thought.
It would have helped to be able to show what the beginning of Act 2 looked like visually but the press kit really doesn’t have anything suitable.
Photo credit Michael Cooper