In my recent review of Amadeus, I mentioned the charmingly funny (yet most likely apocryphal) quote of Emperor Joseph II who, upon hearing Mozart's florid compositions, deemed them to have "too many notes." That questionable quote supposedly was said about Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio), Mozart's first Viennese foray into singspiel, the operatic subset that features spoken interludes instead of sung recitatives. Seraglio is one of Mozart's most beloved operas, a winning mixture of spectacle and low comedy with at least a couple of Mozart's most demanding arias. Though modern audiences sometimes blanch at the political incorrectness of the opera's depiction of Muslims, there's such a breezy undercurrent to even the most stereotypical portrayals that only the most curmudgeonly can really take exception to the piece. What a lot of Mozart lovers may take exception to in this particular presentation is the rather lame "reimagining" of the work to an amorphous time frame and a frankly pretty ugly physical production.
Seraglio is an opera not known for its depth, but for its lightness and at times outright buffoonery. The plot concerns Belmonte, a westerner who has tracked his abducted love Konstanze to the country home of Pasha (Bassa) Selim. Belmonte works in concert with his abducted servant Pedrillo to free Konstanze and Pedrillo's love, Blonde (Blondchen), working to overcome the machinations of Selim's henchman, Osmin. The appeal of the opera, at least in its initial productions, was the lure of "Oriental" (as it was termed then) locales and musical styles (though Mozart's harmonic language really doesn't exploit "real" Eastern modalities when you get right down to it). That, combined with an almost Three Stooges-like depiction of bumbling Muslims, provided early audiences with something to laugh at and later audiences something to "tsk tsk" about. I've always thought that the opera's climax, where the Muslim Pasha suddenly experiences the need to forgive, was a none too subtle jab at Eastern religions, pointing out Christianity's putative superiority since it espouses "turning the other cheek" instead of "beheading the infidel."
Anyone who regularly sees Shakespeare productions, for example, is used to the director du jour's supposed "genius" in thinking up new ways to present hoary classics. I've seen everything from a Macbeth reset to a 1940s film noir ambience (surprisingly effective) to a production I myself conducted, a Gershwin-filled musical take on Twelfth Night (not so great, truth be told). So I am not averse to thoughtful reexaminations of source material which result in new features. What is silly about this Seraglio is its lack of consistency, something which tends to point up the inequities in the portrayals of the Christian heroes and the Muslim "villains" (who, after all, are not very villanous by the time the final curtain falls). We therefore get the "Westerners" clad in modern suits for the gentlemen and mini-skirts or dresses for the women, while the "Easterners" are still robed and turbaned, for the most part.
The entire first scene is played in front of a drawn curtain, highlighted only by twin "theater chairs" (the kind that are in movie theaters). When the curtain finally is drawn, there's a completely strange backdrop that I frankly couldn't decipher. Is it a warehouse? A schematic diagram? A large picture of something indefinable? When that backing finally lifts into the flies, we get a really awful set, a larger than life photo of Bassa Selim with his harem into which is cut a beaded opening and in front of which is a sectional La-Z-Boy couch. No, I'm not kidding, though I think I wish I were. As the opera proceeds through its three acts, we ultimately get "behind" this setting, and then it, too, is literally deconstructed until by the final denouement the singers are all sitting on or standing in front of bleachers. What is director Johan Simons' point in all of this? Is it to help point up the artificiality of the piece? In an extra he makes a point about Seraglio being all about forgiveness (which is in fact a large part of its theme), so maybe he's playing Devil's Advocate and giving the audience something to forgive him for. Unfortunately, I don't know if I can. Seraglio needs to be at least as much about pageant and spectacle as it does about forgiveness, and this production contains little if any of that element.
Where this production takes flight is in its stellar singing and orchestral work. Conductor Constantinos Carydis marshals his Netherlands Chamber Orchestra forces brilliantly (conducting in an untucked shirt sans tie--talk about giving an operatic audience something to "tsk, tsk" about!). The orchestral playing (some of it onstage) is crisp and exciting, bringing Mozart's fleet lines out with crystalline clarity. The five principals are all pretty much perfect in their roles, with Edgaras Montvidas' soaring tenor making the most of Belmonte's arias, and Laura Aikin bringing a mature soprano robustness to her Konstanze (there is, in fact, a bit of an age difference between the two, which may make their love scenes less than believable for some). As Blonde and Petrillo, Mojca Erdmann and Michael Smallwood are in fine voice, with Erdmann's Act II aria "Durch Zärtlichkeit und Schmeicheln" a standout. The performing honors in this version undeniably belong to Kurt Rydl as Osmin, however. The noted Viennese bass is obviously on his "home turf," musically speaking, and provides a suitably comic Osmin with just the right subtext of menace. His basso profundo is suprisingly agile and mellifluous and he simply commands every scene he's in.
Die Entführung aus dem Serail is one of the crown jewels of Mozart's oeuvre and, despite its ostensible political incorrectness at times, really should be seen by any lover of fine music. Unfortunately this physical production is so uneven that it's probably best to simply listen to it. That may make this BD's viability politically incorrect itself.