Reviewed by James Karas
The Abduction from the Seraglio is a comic opera, a Singspiel that combines songs and spoken dialogue. As its title suggests, it does involve the snatching of some prisoners from the hands of those dastardly Ottomans but all is based on love, good humour and a happy ending. That is how Mozart’s opera is usually treated but that does not jive with director Martin Kušej’s conception of the work as presented at the Aix-en-Provence Festival.
Photo copyright:Pascal Victor
Kušej politicizes the opera as if it were just composed as a comment on the current murderous activities of ISIS and the jihadists. In the original libretto, Belmonte (Daniel Behle) arrives at the palace of Pasha Selim in search of his fiancée Konstanze (Jane Archibald), her servants Blonde (Rachel Gilmore) and Pedrillo (David Portillo). They were captured by pirates, you see, and sold to Pasha Selim (Tobias Moretti) who keeps the women in his harem and uses Pedrillo as a handyman or something.
Kušej has moved the action from the eighteenth century to the end of World War I and instead of a palace Belmonte arrives at an army tent in the desert. The tent, the endless stretch of desert and the sweltering sun (hot enough to fry your liver) constitute the set for the production.
Belmonte is met by the usually blustering and buffoonish palace guard Osmin (Franz Josef Selig) who in this production is about as funny as a beheading jihadist.
The palace/tent guards are right out of the current news with the black robes, turbans and kerchiefs wrapped around their faces. I hoped that none of them forgot to change into their ordinary clothes after the performance for they were almost certain to be shot by the ubiquitous and alert French police.
Photo copyright:Pascal Victor
The opera is sung in German but the prisoners are given a dash of phrases in English which are in fact amusing. Pedrillo is buried up to his neck in the scorching sand and no one seems much concerned as they continue with their plot to escape. Finally he yells “stop with your f…g singing” to Belmonte to no effect.
Once you swallow without digesting the politicization of a comic work, the performances are quite good. Soprano Archibald has some wonderfully melodic and moving arias including the long and anguished "Traurigkeit ward mir zum Loose" where she grieves for her sorrowful fate. A sublime aria meets a sublime voice. Selim is in love with her but she is faithful to Belmonte. She would rather die than be unfaithful but Selim threatens with tortures of every kind. You see where a scorned lover’s threats become an ISIS menace, if you are so minded.
Tenor Daniel Behle is a lightly voiced Belmonte and a typically ardent lover who sings of the power of love in the tough and florid aria “Ich baue ganz auf deine Starke.” Belmonte has not been briefed on the power of oil and Western treachery after World War I and his ignorance has no effect on Behle’s superb performance.
Gilmore as Blonde and Portillo as Pedrillo perform with lighter more comic style as become their roles and do excellent work.
Bass Selig has a marvelously rumbling bass voice and he would make a superb buffoon in a comic opera. Here we are supposed to take him seriously as a murderous psychopath and a threat to civilization.
Jérémie Rhorer conducted the Freiburger Barockorchester and MusicAeterna (the choir of l’Opéra de Perm) and they were not briefed on the fact that the production was political commentary. They played and sang Mozart’s marvelous composition with no regard to Middle East anxieties.
When the lovers escape from Selim’s palace they are quickly captured by the alert Osmin. Selim in a gesture of humanity grants them their freedom. When they escape from the tent in the desert in the current production, they trudge through the desert for four days before they are apprehended. They are returned to Selim who forgives them in a gesture of reconciliation and orders Osmin to escort them to the border of their country.
According to the program “when he comes back, Osmin throws a bloody gift at the feet of the pasha.”
Before the beginning of the performance, Bernard Foccroulle, the Director General of the Festival announced that there were a couple of changes to the production. One scene would have showed simulated beheadings of Europeans. The other was that of the “bloody gift” which was to be the heads of the lovers. We were spared the pleasure.
No doubt there is an opera out there that can satisfy Kušej’s need for commentary on current affairs But please leave Mozart alone.
The Abduction from the Seraglio by W. A. Mozart Georg opened on July 3 and will be performed seven times until July 21, 2015 at the Théâtre de l’Archevêché, Aix-en-Provence, France. www.festival-aix.com