Gioachino Antonio Rossini, Paris, 1865.


Gioachino Rossini was born on February 29, 1792, in Pesaro, a small spa town of Marche, in the Adriatic. He had a birthday every four years, in every leap year… His father played the horn and his mother was a soprano. Rossini presented his first opera at the age of 18 at the Teatro S Moisé in Venice (La Cambiale di Matrimonio).

The first great success came two years later with the opera La Pietra del Paragone which was performed at the Scala in Milan 53 times within one season (1812)! Next year comes the success of Tancredi at the famous Teatro la Fenice in Venice. It is in Rome, Teatro Argentina, that he will present in 1816 and 1817 his two most famous works: “The Barber of Seville” and “La Cenerentola”, which establish him as the greatest composer of Opera Buffa.

By the time he was 30 (1822) he had written 32 of his 39 operas. His last one was the famous “William Tell”, which was presented in Paris in 1829; a play half a century ahead of its time. He became famous and settled in the capital of culture, Paris.

The great writer Stendhal (1783-1842) states in his work “The Life of Rossini”: “After Napoleon’s death, another man was found, for whom one hears every day, in Moscow like in Naples, in London like in Vienna, in Paris like in Calcutta”.

The “Siege of Corinth” (Le Siège de Corinthe) is by far the larger and most successful Philhellenic musical work. Rossini, enthusiastic about the struggle of the Greeks, but also by the effort of the Philhellenic Committees, the art of Delacroix and the texts of Chateaubriand, decides to contribute to the fund raising campaigns of the Philhellenic Committees. He transformed his older work “Maometto Secondo (1820)[1], copying the music, but also a small part of the text written by Cesare della Valle, Count of Ventignano, rewritten by Luigi Balocchi and Alexandre Soumet to a new libretto.

The work was presented for the first time at the Paris Opera, on October 9, 1826, in French, with great success and the considerable revenues were given to support the Greek liberation struggle. It was the first Live-Aid concert in history. In just one day, 30,000 francs of the time (about € 100,000) were raised. An amount equal to the annual income of a wealthy Parisian.

The opera was translated into Italian by Calisto Bassi and performed in Barcelona in 1827, while its first stage performance was in Parma on January 26, 1828, entitled L’Assedio di Corinto, and then in Genoa on June 7 of that year. The rehearsals were conducted by Donizetti himself, who also wrote an aria for the perfomance in Genoa, which became very popular with the public of the time and made Rossini’s opera even more famous.

In 1827 the opera was also presented in Brussels and Budapest. In 1830 in St. Petersburg, in 1831 in Vienna and in 1835 in New York! The opera remained popular for more than 30 years in all major opera houses and then it fell into oblivion. It reappeared in 1949 in Florence with Renata Tebaldi in the lead role. For the 100th anniversary of Rossini’s death in 1969, a memorable performance was given at La Scala in Milan, with Beverly Sills at her European debut.
The premiere of the opera in Greece, took place at the National Opera just after 167 years, in January 1993, following my persistent proposal, under my capacity as General Secretary of the Board, after I faced objections and concerns on whether the project would be popular! The play was staged with great success, directed by Mario Corradi, sets and costumes by Nikos Petropoulos. It was the first time that the internationally renowned French magazine Opera International dedicated two pages to the National Opera of Greece. [2]

Scenery N. Petropoulos, from the 1st act of the Siege  of Corinth

The text of the opera is inspired by the major event of the Greek Struggle which was the Third Siege of Messolonghi and the heroic exodus. Decisive for the mounting influence of Western public opinion in favor of the Greeks.

Critic S. Lacreteil was clear on the true meaning of the libretto:
“This opera contains references to the war of the Greeks and especially to the Greeks of Messolonghi, elements that ensure an enthusiastic success …”. So we see that the parallel between Corinth and Messolonghi in Rossini’s opera is considered clear and accepted by the public and critics who watched the performance. The Moniteur Universel newspaper wrote that “in Corinth we saw Messolonghi. With the Siege of Corinth, Rossini and the Greeks besieged and occupied Paris.[3]

At this point, it is interesting to note that the case is not related to the poem with the same name by Lord Byron. In The Siege of Corinth, Lord Byron refers to the siege of Acrocorinth by the Ottomans in 1715 and the slaughter of the Venetian guard.

In the poem published in 1816, the poet sees the historical event through the eyes of Alp, a Venetian who converted and became a mercenary of the Ottomans and Francesca Minotti, daughter of the Commander of the Guard, who refused to give his daughter to Alp. This was the reason for his conversion and the betrayal of his own people, out of thirst for revenge.

Rossini admired, without a doubt, the great philhellene poet. Fate brought him to London on a tour with his wife, the famous Spanish lyric singer Isabella Colbran (1785-1845), the day Lord Byron died in Messolonghi, April 19, 1824. On June 11, Rossini will give a concert in London and will present an Ottavino (short work for eight voices) dedicated to the death of Lord Byron he had just composed. In the piece, “The Mourning of the Muses for the Death of Lord Byron” (Il pianto delle Muse in morte di Lord Byron), Rossini himself sung the first role![4]

Isabella Colbran (1785-1845)

But let’s look at the plot of Rossini’s Opera. We are in 1458. After the Fall of Constantinople, Mehmed II II besieges Moria.[5] Cleomenes, governor of Corinth, recommends the surrender of the city to the Conqueror. However, the young officer Neoclis is in favor of a new attack! Admiring his courage, Cleomenes offers him the hand of his daughter Pamyra. In the attack, the Greeks are repulsed and Kleomenis is captured. Pamyra intervenes and so Mehmed II II recognizes in her face the woman he had fallen in love with when he came to Corinth as a spy on behalf of his father. He then offers peace to the Greeks, if Pamyra marries him. Despite her father’s appeals to leave with him and pick up Neocles, Pamyra who was in love, stays with Mehmed II.

While the weddings are being prepared, Neocles enters the Turkish camp and asks back Pamyra, who, in order to save him, says that he is her brother. She flees with Neocles and Mehmed II swears to slaughter the last Greek before sunset and to seize Pamyra.

The Greeks gather in the catacombs of Corinth, ready for the final battle. Kleomenis, Neocles and Pamyra, along with the other Greeks, invoke Marathon and, of course, Thermopylae. Priests bless the banners in the most moving scene of the play, for which Rossini wrote new music.[6]

The Turks win, but when he reaches to Pamyra, Mehmed II discovers that she along with the other Greek women, had committed suicide.
“Everyone died to protect us …” sings the women’s choir, “A God sees us from above. To escape the bondage of slavery, Corinth dies in flames, “says Ismene, while Mehmed II, as a young Nero, sings:” Hard madness, blind hatred, a night full of destruction.”
While in “Maometto II!” Anna’s suicide and a short choreography close the curtain, in “The Siege of Corinth” Rossini escalates the viewer’s anxiety by putting an entire nation to die while the Turks rejoice : “Wonderful madness, sweet image, Corinth dies in her flames, all this misery is our work “, while the Greeks mourn as they die from the depths of the stage while Corinth collapses in the flames: “Oh Homeland “.
Suicide scenes were not new to opera at the time, but the death of an entire people on stage, and with such realism, was unprecedented. The combination of music and dramatic stage action created in the “Siege” a new aesthetic of “horror” in the opera and is clearly the forerunner of the great romantic lyric works. The public’s impression of the “Siege” was utterly riveting. Leon Escudier wrote about the finale of the third act:
“The whole room, which was like fossilized during the final scene, suddenly rose like a single person, and in the last notes, it was screaming with excitement with a voice of immense admiration …”.
The newspaper’s critic La Quotidienne wrote:

“Nothing was missing from Rossini’s triumph, not only was each piece applauded repeatedly, but even after the performance everyone wanted and asked for the composer. They called him on stage for more than half an hour, until it was announced that he had left the Theater. Following his example, people followed him to his house where they gathered under his windows on the street, while a band was playing the finale of the second act of the opera … “.

The fact that Greeks were present at the performances is an indisputable fact. We have for this, the testimony of Adolf Nouri (who sang the role of Neocles), who in a letter dated October 12, 1826 writes:
“Turkish journalists have created a lot of problems for us. Many Greeks were present in the audience, but fortunately the drumbeats, the harsh sounds of the winds and even the cannons did not prevent them from coming to the Theater three times a week to watch with admiration the fate of the unfortunate Greeks who are killed by my colored scales and from my roulades … “.[7].

In the last pages of the program there was a printed “Greek Ode” with the following provocative verses: “Get up, take arms , take revenge proud Greeks …”. Such was the success of the “Siege” that King Charles X honored Rossini with the Legion of Honor. Rossini, however, denied the decoration because, as he told to La Rochefoucault, he should not accept such an honor for a rewritten work, when in fact other great French composers such as Hérold had not yet been honored.[8]

Rossini from the age of 37 until his death at the age of 76, in 1868,  that is for forty years did not write another Opera! He will write only songs, small orchestral works and two great religious works: the Stabat Mater (1841) and the “Petite Messe Solennelle” (1864).

He was the most important Italian composer of the first half of the 19th century and transformed both the style and the content of the Opera, creating the famous belcanto. He introduced a number of innovations, such as the famous Rossini crescendo and his unique ensembles. He was the master of Opera Buffa, the comic Opera, but also the reformer of the boring Opera Seria. In just five years (1824-1829) he played a key role in the French Opera, as his work influenced composers such as Adam, Meyerbeer and Offenbach, whom he called “Little Mozart of the Champs Elysees”.

He was a famous lover of the beauty of life and a great eater. He named various dishes after his works “Bocconi Gazza Ladra”, “Tarte Guglielmo Tell”, while the famous Turnedos Rossini with foie gras is his creation.
His works, especially the comic ones, exude freedom and the joy of life, something which made them very popular in his time. The interest in his work surfaced again in the 1920s and more in the 1950s. Of particular note were the unique interpretations of the roles of Rosina in the Barber, the Italiana in Algiers, or Fiorilla in Il Turco in Italia and of Armida in the opera of the same name by the great Maria Callas.

Her interpretations revived Rossini’s works and reciprocated his love for Greece.

You can listen to the Siege of Corinth here.

Maria Callas at the Scala of Milano


[1] Another work in the Turcherie series, featuring Turkish roles where the Turks are presented either as ridiculous or as violent barbarians (L’Italiana in Algeri, Il Turco in Italia), in the context of that period’s conflict between European and Ottoman forces.

[2] Petropoulos, directed a new performance of the play on June 2002 in ancient Corin

[3]   Alexis Spanidis, Rossini and Greece

[4] The Musical Times and Singing Class Circular, Vol. 41, No. 683 (Jan. 1, 1900)

[5] Mehmed II encamped outside the walls of Corinth on May 15, 1458. He used as pretext the fact that Demetrius and Thomas Palaiologos (Constantine’s brothers who still controlled the Peloponnese), did pay taxes.

[6] We note again, as in the case of La Revolution Grècque of Berlioz, the combination of ancient Greece and Christianity.

[7] Alexis Spanidis, Rossini and Greece

[8] Same as above