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the corsair

24 august 2020

Four couplets early in The Corsair (1814) epitomize the Byronic hero:

Though smooth his voice, and calm his general mien,
Still seems there something he would not have seen:
His features' deepening lines and varying hue
At times attracted, yet perplexed the view,
As if within that murkiness of mind
Work'd feelings fearful, and yet undefined;
Such might it be—that none could truly tell—
Too close enquiry his stern glance would quell. (Canto I, section ix)
That's pretty clever writing, really. If you can't come up with a character note for your hero, make inscrutability his character note.

Conrad the Corsair, for all his murkiness, is not a very active character in his own poem. He goes on a raid against the advice of his girlfriend Medora, pretty much because what the hell, and though he saves the beauteous harem slave Gulnare from an ensuing fire, Conrad gets captured by the Pacha Seyd and thrown into durance vile. Gulnare springs him and gives him a chance to kill the Pacha, which he passes up; she has to do the deed herself. The couple make their way back to the other corsairs, only to find that Medora has expired in Conrad's absence, and then our hero silently vanishes. The End.

This headlong, undramatic story was nonetheless one of the big bestsellers of the Romantic period. I can't think many people read it anymore – even as an academic sample of late-early-modern English orientialism, The Corsair is kind of perfunctory. But if it's hard to admire Byron's poem for its story or its ideology, you can certainly marvel at his command of the heroic couplet. This rhyming form had been brought to static perfection by Dryden, Pope, and Dr. Johnson; the young Byron wrote dashing, kinetic stretches of couplets, apparently without the least effort.

The most significant adaptation of The Corsair was Giuseppe Verdi's 1848 opera, with libretto by his frequent collaborator Francesco Maria Piave. Il Corsaro is not performed very often. It shares its source's undramatic qualities. By this I mean that despite a central love square (Medora and Corrado love each other, Gulnara loves Corrado but empathizes with Medora, Seid loves Gulnara and hates Corrado), the action that unfolds out of those tensions lacks suspense or conflict.

Medora is such a passive creature that even before Corrado and Gulnara reappear, she opens the final scene by taking poison. This is one of these slow-acting operatic poisons that allows its taker one good aria before they go, but she can't really get into any good conflict with the other two in the short time she has left. Earlier, Gulnara kills Seid offstage after only pro forma discussion with him: "I want to leave with Corrado," "No you won't," exeunt, stab stab, that's the end of Seid. Corrado spends most of his time shackled in a dungeon – or is it the hold of a ship? – emitting vague wails.

Il Corsaro is redeemed by Medora's weird first-act aria "Non so le tetre immagini," which has been recorded by many a star coloratura. Find Beverly Sills singing this on YouTube; it is worth the search. The sinfonia and the interludes between the acts are also atmospheric, piraty pieces. I am not sure if Verdi had heard Wagner's Fliegende Holländer (1843) by the time he composed Il Corsaro, but he seems to have been reaching for similar ethereal maritime effects.

The signal contrast between Byron's version and Verdi & Piave's, for me, comes in an answer that Gulnare gives Conrad as they get to know each other in his dungeon. She reveals her crush on him. I thought you were with Seyd, says the obtuse Conrad. Even though she is fixing to stab Seyd, Gulnare has a hard time coming up with an unequivocal reply:

"My love stern Seyd's! Oh—No—No—not my love—
"Yet much this heart, that strives no more, once strove
"To meet his passion—but it would not be.
"I felt—I feel—love dwells with—with the free.
"I am a slave, a favoured slave at best,
"To share his splendour, and seem very blest!
"Oft must my soul the question undergo,
"Of—'Dost thou love?' and burn to answer, 'No!'
"Oh! hard it is that fondness to sustain,
"And struggle not to feel averse in vain;
"But harder still the heart's recoil to bear,
"And hide from one—perhaps another there."
(ll. 1104-1115)
Essentially, "No," but Gulnare muddles her delivery. Some kind of conflict simmers here, but of course Byron doesn't elaborate.

Her opposite number Gulnara, in Piave's libretto, doesn't beat around the bush:

Quel barbaro?
Schiava son io, corsaro!
E può la schiava un palpito sentir
per l'oppressore? (Act III)

[That barbarian?
I'm a slave, corsair!
Can a slave feel her heart beat
for an oppressor?]
In the course of condensing Byron's rambling explanation, Piave and Verdi make Gulnara's motives simpler and cleaner.

I watched Il Corsaro on the excellent 2012 DVD from the Teatro Regio di Parma, part of their Tutto Verdi series. It clocks in at 108 minutes, a no-nonsense production featuring soprano Irina Lungu as Medora – well worth acquiring for the Verdi completist.

George Gordon, Lord Byron. The Corsair. 1814. Wikisource.