Il Turco in Italia, dramma buffo in two acts to a libretto by Felice Romani, was first produced at the Teatro alla Scala on 14th August 1814. The singers at the first performances were Filippo Galli (Selim), Francesca Maffei Festa (Fiorilla), Luigi Paccini (Geronio), Giovanni David (Narciso), Pietro Vasoli (Poeta, Prosdocimo), Adelaide Carpano (Zaida), Gaetano Pozzi (Albazar).
On the outskirts of Naples the gipsy girl Zaida is suffering the pangs of love, although she has been invited by Albazar to join in with a group of other gipsies who are joyously singing together. The poet Prosdocimo, on the look-out for real-life episodes that he can work into his next comedy, draws near, interested. In the distance he spots Geronio, husband of the temperamental Fiorilla; he is obsessed with having his hand read by gipsy girls, and now he wants to know when his wife will mend her ways. However, the gipsy’s prophecy is far from comforting, and he goes off in distress. Meanwhile Prosdocimo learns all about Zaida’s past: once she was happy, a favoured slave in the seraglio of Erzerum, loved by the Prince Selim, who meant to marry her, but instead he condemned her to death after listening to the calumnies put about by her jealous rivals, and she was saved by Albazar. Prosdocimo comforts her, telling her that, that very evening in Naples, a Turkish prince is expected to arrive, who, if he were to learn of her fidelity to Selim, might very well help her to win back the affections of the man she loves. Whilst Fiorilla is coming back from a stroll with some lady friends, the Turkish prince disembarks on the shore. He is struck by the beauty of Fiorilla, who readily accepts his overtures. From some distance away Prosdocimo congratulates himself on this promising turn of events, because he has learned that the prince is none other than Selim, Zaida’s beloved. The poet is satisfied with this dramatic coup, rich in potential developments for his comedy. Meanwhile Geronio arrives with Narciso, Fiorilla’s cicisbeo or official follower; they are disgusted by her behaviour. Fiorilla and Selim repair to her house to sip a cup of coffee, but they are interrupted by Geronio and Narciso, who upset and offend the Turk, who is only calmed down because Fiorilla forces her husband to kiss the hem of Selim’s robe in respect. Narciso’s subsequent behaviour, demanding that the husband defend his marital honour more aggressively, brings things to a head. Selim leaves Fiorilla, promising to meet her later on the beach. Geronio scolds his wife and threatens to cast her off, but she is too clever for him and puts his neck firmly back under her yoke. Selim, waiting for Fiorilla on the beach and ready to elope with her, meets Zaida instead. They recognize one another and embrace affectionately. Fiorilla, Geronio and Narciso come on: a fight breaks out between Zaida and Fiorilla over Selim, while Prosdocimo contentedly watches the unexpected way the act ends.
At an inn, Geronio learns from Prosdocimo that his wife plans to meet Selim there. Selim suggests that Geronio should sell Fiorilla to him, following the Turkish way of getting rid of no-longer-wanted wives. Indignantly, Geronio refuses, and the two men threaten one another. The two fair rivals, Fiorilla and Zaida, arrive at the inn and try to force Selim to choose between them. The Turk’s indecision offends Fiorilla whilst it upsets Zaida, who goes away. Prosdocimo, in the meantime, has heard that the Turk intends to carry Fiorilla off during a masked ball. The poet has already warned Zaida of this, and the gipsy plans to turn up at the appointed spot dressed as Fiorilla, and he now suggests that Geronio dress up as Selim to confuse Fiorilla and save her from being kidnapped. Narciso, who has overheard Prosdocimo, decides that he too will dress as a Turk and go to the ball, to look after Fiorilla. In the semi-darkness of the ballroom misunderstandings multiply: Fiorilla encounters Narciso, believing him to be Selim, and Selim meets Zaida, believing her to be Fiorilla. Geronio, the last to arrive, finding himself face-to-face with two Turks and two Fiorillas, loudly demands his wife and is taken for a madman. Later he accepts Prosdocimo’s suggestion that he pretend to divorce her, while Selim and Zaida decide to depart together. Fiorilla, in fact, receives a letter in which Geronio tells her that he does not want her as a wife any more, and he urges her to go back to her own family in Sorrento. Deserted by her friends, too, Fiorilla is desolate and gets ready to leave, penitent at last, and very humbly dressed. Following Prosdocimo’s advice, Geronio takes his wife back, and the newly reunited couple say goodbye to Zaida and Selim, who are about to sail away. Narciso, too, makes his peace with Geronio and Fiorilla, asking them to forgive him. Prosdocimo, satisfied with the way the plot has wound up, hopes that the audience, too, likes the happy ending.