Only six years after America won the Revolutionary War, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart premiered one of his more underappreciated German operatic works in “Die Entführung aus dem Serail” – or “The Abduction from the Seraglio” in English – at the Vienna Burgtheater in Austria.
Characterized by a carefree complexion, but one that nonetheless explores the overtones of love, desire, resourcefulness, longing, and forgiveness, the opera’s narrative (libretto is by Christoph Friedrich Bretzner and is adapted by Johann Gottlieb Stephanie) is uniquely driven more by its spoken dialogue than its various arias, which exist as an astonishing addendum to the events that transpire on a train ride from Istanbul, Turkey to Paris, France.
The LA Opera’s presentation of “The Abduction from the Seraglio,” which lasts through February 19th, and is conducted by the venerable James Conlon, as well as directed by James Robinson, takes place over a century after its penned date – in the 1920s. Nonetheless, from first glance, when the breathtaking cross-sectional rail car set by Allen Moyer is revealed, attendees are taken through a three-act passage of time that incorporates six characters and their interwoven story. It starts following a precursor of unseen events when three Europeans – including at the center of which is a Spanish noblewoman named Konstanze, her maidservant Blonde, and her fiancée’s (Belmonte) servant, Pedrillo – are sold to a wealthy man named Pasha Selim. The opera then officially begins with Belmonte trying to intercept Selim during his train ride on the “Orient Express,” and rescue Konstanze, who has become a target of Selim’s unwanted affection. While Belmonte has the other two Europeans to use as help, who are also on the locomotive, there is the monumental challenge of getting past the truculent Osmin, who is Selim’s right-hand man. To make matters worse, Osmin is smitten with Blonde (to her chagrin), who happens to be in love with her male counterpart, Pedrillo.
Certainly, the six roles are maximized to full effect by the performers, all of whom are standouts in their own right. For instance, Osmin, who is portrayed by the very talented Morris Robinson, is dressed like a well-to-do sheik, with an endowed mustache, and a fiery temper that often gets the best of him. The character is conveyed with comedic vim and vigor, and shines during slapstick moments, as in when he ties up Pedrillo in Act I, and literally falls over himself while admiring Blonde at the start of Act II. Of course, Osmin’s rage cannot be reformed, and comes to a boiling point in Act III when he sings the famously low aria, “O, wie will ich triumphiere.” The bass in Robinson’s voice punctuates with power and tremors with indignation, skillfully belying the underlying humorousness of the role, which is a testament to Robinson’s efforts.
The dashing and daring Belmonte is played by Joel Prieto, a resounding tenor, who is successful at effortlessly maintaining long strings of notes, particularly during “Hier soll ich dich denn sehen,” which is the first aria of the opera and one dedicated to recovering his betrothed, Konstanze. Even more impressive about Prieto’s heart-wrenching resonance is how he shapes the emotional quality of his voice, and is able to emote a wistfulness that colors his intonations with hope and love. The duet (“Welch ein Geschick! O Qual der Seele”) between he and Konstanze (Sally Matthews) in Act III, when it is believed that Selim will show them no clemency, rings like a lovers’ mutually beautiful tribute, when selflessness becomes the standard as death seemingly looms.
As Konstanze, Matthews infuses her role with an appropriate amount of inner conflict and urgency that bowls over the audience in one of the opera’s highlights – when Selim determinedly tries to persuade Konstanze’s adoration through a fusillade of expensive gifts, each one more tormenting than the last for her to rebuff. When the final article (a fur coat) is removed by Konstanze, and she melodically squeals in defiance as Selim tries to make physical passes at her, Matthews takes her character through an eruption of soprano-daggered sumptuousness in the climactic coda of “Martern aller Arten.” This has the impact it does for the observer because, in addition to being an elite singer, Matthews is proficient as a purposeful actor — defining her character’s displeasure with Selim through perturbed and frazzled facial expressions. That said, while she may be a damsel in distress, Konstanze has a veritable degree of power over her surroundings, and Matthews communicates this impression well.
For most of the stage production, Pasha Selim is a suave villain, who is sometimes comically self-aware with dead-panned witticisms, and at other times pitiable for pining after someone who is taken. Nevertheless, despite being an exclusively speaking role, Selim is fantastically depicted with wry fervor by Hamish Linklater. Utilizing praiseworthy diction and projection, Linklater can be heard and appreciated at every end of the Pavilion, evoking laughter as in when he dryly wonders out loud why Konstanze doesn’t warm up to him despite the “many gifts and threats.” And, notwithstanding his antagonistic mien for most of the opera, Linklater imbues Selim’s about-face and sudden display of goodwill at the conclusion with ample plausibility, as he goes from a creep to a hero in one fell swoop.
Rounding out the cast are the two servants, who not only professionally belong to Konstanze and Belmonte, but to each other in a romantic sense. Blonde (So Young Park) and Pedrillo (Brenton Ryan) are the dynamic firecrackers of the operatic account, doling out droll lines one moment, and belting solemn notes the next. Interestingly, both characters share their most memorable moments with the obstreperous Osmin. Undoubtedly, the uproarious results of such are attributable to the give-and-take that the performers allow each other. As a result, Park’s spirited portrayal of Blonde succeeds in positively infecting the audience, as in when she contravenes Osmin’s attempt to seduce her by threatening silverware and spices. Likewise, Ryan’s clever interpretation of the astute Pedrillo elicits a deserved reaction when he merely puts an amusing stress on the word “ukulele” to a disagreeable guard, and when he persuades Osmin to inebriate himself via a “slippery elixir.”
Overall, the James Robinson-directed and James Conlon-conducted rendition of “The Abduction from the Seraglio” receives the highest recommendation for inviting the audience to immerse themselves as a passenger on Allen Moyer’s train-car set. It awe-strikingly moves laterally, and acts as the setting for its deft cast to impart upon observers, as Mozart intended, the staidness of love and humanity within a comedic structure. And, though such a juxtaposition may seem paradoxical, life can be driven by forces that unpredictably manifest themselves, some of which can surely make us laugh. Our journeys are often stranger than the fiction that attempts to mirror our images back to us — which is an important message that is effectively captured by LA Opera’s production of “The Abduction from the Seraglio.”
For more information about “The Abduction from the Seraglio,” please visit laopera.org