TWO HUNDRED porcelain-skinned beauties, in a delirium of exotic ethnicities, fair and dark, luxuriate in billows of silk, satin, silver-brocaded velvet, and diaphanous linen. They are dewy from the haman, an all-morning ablution of perfumed steam, pumice, and salt scrapes. . .
In Vienna in 1782, the European fantasy of the Oriental potentate included an image of the magnanimous pasha. It seemed to satisfy a chagrined longing for paradise lost, and appetite redeemed. Hollywood too, from Valentino to Flynn, from Bond to the Dream of Jeannie, has been rabid to reprise the Turquophilia of eighteenth and nineteenth century Orientalists, for a Western myth of the Eastern Eden. According to faithful journals and the correspondence of a few privileged Europeans who actually made it inside the harem, exotic wonders did all abound in very deed. But the Ottoman Empire was one of the most brutal and repressive of all empires. The real story was much more complicated. . .
So Mozart had Bassa Selim rise above the vengeance he expects of his European rival, achieving nobility and redemption in an act of clemency. Through the brilliant vaudeville with which Mozart answers him, we may hear, as well, the promise of the ancient prophet: “Surely Allah ever watches over you.”