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Who is Maometto Secondo?: The Story Behind Rossini's Opera

By Jane Fitzpatrick

AppreciateOpera.org Contributing Columnist

 

Gioachino Rossini completed Maometto Secondo in 1820 with a libretto by Cesare della Valle. The opera premiered that same year at the Teatro di San Carlo, the very same venue that is set to host a production of the work once more from October 25th to November 5th.

Gioachino Rossini

Mehmed II, also known as The Conqueror, ruled the Ottoman Empire during the mid to late fifteenth century. He earned his nickname “The Conqueror” in honor of his ambitious military feats, but he also demonstrated a dedicated passion for learning and an interest in art from across the world. It is believed that the sultan learned several languages, including Latin and Greek. For his personal education, he maintained a vast library and was especially intrigued by Roman history. Prominent Italian artists of his time created works that featured the Ottoman sultan as a world leader in the style of Roman heroism, contributing to Mehmed’s ambitious diplomatic endeavors as well as his academic interests.


Maometto Secondo takes place in the late 1400s during the Ottoman encounter with the Venetians at Negroponte (a fortress 35 miles north of Athens). Although Cesare della Valle’s libretto deems Maometto the villain and enemy of the Venetian-Christian heroes’ faith and homeland, the sultan exhibits complex dynamics in character traits and emotional struggle. Though proud of his victories as an international conqueror and renowned leader, Maometto faces defeat in love through the opera’s narrative: it is shockingly revealed in the fictional plot that Anna, his enemy’s daughter, is his long-lost lover...


Anna met Maometto in years past by a different name while he was traveling in disguise. Without revealing their families’ political standings, the two had fallen in love before having to part ways. Conflicted in her heart after reuniting with Maometto and discovering his true identity, Anna swears that she would rather die than betray her country and her faith.


In its original form, the opera is true to history in its dramatic ending, as Maometto claims military victory but loses Anna as she dies by her own hand.


In 1822, Rossini altered the ending of his story to invoke a happier response from his Venetian audiences. Rather than defeat, Rossini’s revised opera (Venice 1822 version) portrays a victory for the Venetians and the promise of Anna’s hand in marriage to the famed soldier who killed the Ottoman sultan, Calbo.


Historically speaking, there isn’t much to factually support the narrative of Mehmed II experiencing heartbreak after the capture of Negroponte. In fact, evidence from his policies and personal actions in regard to his love life further demonstrates a commitment to political strategy more than romance. Like many Ottoman sultans, Mehmed II had several wives to produce heirs and spread political power.


The Venetians in Rossini’s operatic cast are particularly averse to the sultan’s Muslim identity, but Mehmed II was actually less tyrannical about religious conversions than many other historical leaders. Mehmed II’s policies demonstrated a desire for peaceful coexistence among religions, due to growing diversity within the Ottoman Empire; however, special tax requirements remained for some, and the sultan remained politically engaged through crafty connections with the religious community leaders of his empire.


Opera has been known for painting romance and drama across history, and Rossini’s Maometto Secondo is no exception. As a character, Maometto endures as a heartbroken villain in Rossini’s work, but one that inspires us to seek the true story behind the impressive historical leader.


Beyond the fiction and beyond the villainizations, factual history can offer a world of perspectives and complexities to learn from.


See Rossini’s Maometto Secondo at the Teatro di San Carlo from October 25th to November 5th.

 

Jane Fitzpatrick is an avid researcher of the intersections between religious traditions and international affairs with a passion for opera and art. She earned her master's degree in International Affairs from Penn State University and has a Bachelor's degree in Religious Studies from Gettysburg College. Jane has previously provided research assistance for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Strategic Religious Engagement Unit of the U.S. Department of State, and the U.S. Army War College. In 2023, she became an AppreciateOpera.org contributing columnist.

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