Mozart’s Die Entführung in Rome

Mozart, Die Entführung aus dem Serail: (The Abduction from the Seraglio): Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, Rome 17.4.2011 (DG)

Belmonte: Charles Castronovo
Osmin: Jaco Hujipen
Pedrillo: Cosmin Ifrim
Selim: Rodney Clarke
Konstanze: Claudia Boyle
Blonde: Beate Ritter

Stage Director: Graham Vick
Stage, Set and Costume Design: Richard Hudson
Lighting: Giuseppe Di Iorio
Chorus Master: Roberto Gabbiani
Conductor: Gabriele Ferro

Graham Vick has made an international name for himself with simple productions of the classic repertoire that are both economical in scale and respectful to text and music. As his Othello in Birmingham reveals, he can be stark at times, but for a reason. He brings out the somber realism of which even Mozart was capable despite all appearances of a stereotypical Enlightenment optimism. The intentions of Mozart’s characters are so ambiguous that one wonders whether even the cultivated Viennese court caught the subtle innuendos. Vick understands that attentiveness to Mozart’s compositional ingenuity is precisely what allows us to pick up these hints of double meaning.

His production of Die Entführung aus dem Serail at the Teatro dell’ Opera follows the same pattern. Upon entering the theatre, one sees a blue, abstract scrim painted à la Barnett Newman with a single red diagonal stretching from ceiling to stage and back to ceiling again. The motif is replicated twice with ropes on the stage flanking a large cube which, except for a dinner table in Act I, is the only scenery used in the production. The cube consists of a top and two sides depicting blue sky with wisps of cloud, a fourth side shows a star-studded constellation, and a fifth side opens onto the garishly decorated interior of a Turkish seraglio. Two sides of the cube are outfitted with three doors each, and the cube rotates from scene to scene.

The first to emerge from the cube is, of course, Osmin, who fondles one burqa-clad woman after another while singing Wer ein Liebchen hat gefunden before sending each away through one of the doors. The relaxed tempos of this opening scene introduce an unusually slow pace that carries through to the finale. Indeed, some moments are interminable, as when Selim, seated far away from Konstanze at the other end of a long table in Act I, takes several bites of his dinner before reciting each of the spoken lines to the object of his unrequited love. The scene borders on the comical until Konstanze breaks into Ach ich liebte, at which point the sublimity of Mozart’s music is all the more breathtaking because of the preceding silence. Whether this was the intended effect I cannot say, but it certainly worked.

The pregnant pause before Welche Wonne, welche Lust in Act II was less successful. After Pedrillo informs Blonde of Belmonte’s presence in Selim’s palace, the music begs for Blonde to burst into the aria suddenly. As it was, she waits a few moments for the news to sink in and consequently ends up conveying more a feeling of dismay than irrepressible joy.

Yet another slowing in the action occurs during the introduction to Martern aller Arten in Act II, a scene notoriously difficult to stage due to its length. Here the direction made a wise choice in calling for nothing but a stare down between Selim and Konstanze, thus allowing the orchestral soloists to shine and the audience to revel in this delightful concertina.

At other times members of the cast seemed less sure of how to handle themselves. Pedrillo, mustering up his courage in Frisch zum Kampfe in Act II, nervously kicked an orange that had been left on stage from an earlier exchange between Osmin and Blonde in Durch Zärtlichkeit und Schmeicheln. The gesture had potential until the audience realized that it was more coincidental than choreographed, an impression reinforced by his nonchalant tug on one of the “abstract” ropes.

The positive aspects of the pacing were no less apparent. There was little to distract the audience from the sheer brilliance of Mozart’s music and the charm of the Bretzner/Stephanie libretto. This was an explicit goal of Vick, who firmly believes that the characters’ feelings, intentions, and motives are already built into the score. Conductor Gabriele Ferro was quite comfortable with the approach and used it to showcase the vocal finesse of his fine young singers.

The crowd was particularly pleased with Irish soprano Claudia Boyle (Konstanze), a recent participant in the Young Singer’s Project at the Salzburg Opera Festival. She does not have a big voice but boasts a rich timbre that is wonderfully consistent across her range. She ended each aria more confidently then she began, and, surprisingly, showed little anxiety in this her Roman debut. New York native Charles Castronovo is natural as Belmont and sings with a palette of many emotional colors rarely heard in Mozart tenors. Beate Ritter is a delightful Blonde: one cannot but hear a plethora of potential roles in the innocent purity of her voice. Cosmin Ifrim plays a clever but intemperate Pedrillo. It would have been nice if he and Jaco Hujipen (Osmin) had been given the chance to ham it up in Vivat Bacchus! Bacchus lebe! As for Hujipen, he had both the low notes and the skill needed for Osmin without overdoing it, showing that he clearly understood Vick’s concept. Unfortunately, the staging required him to nearly rape Blonde after Durch Zärtlichkeit und Schmeicheln. I have yet to comprehend why directors think that we the audience will be disappointed if not treated to sexual passion and aggression on stage when most of us go to the theatre precisely to avoid such gratuitousness on primetime television.

The opera ends with the same skeptical attitude toward the ideals of the Enlightenment with which it began. Selim delivers his final speech with a touch of resentment, making you wonder whether he is sincere and whether the reconciliation will last. As the Italian philosopher Mario Perniola put it in Monday’s edition of La Repubblica, “the myth of unlimited progress has finally collapsed”. It is refreshing to see a production of the Abduction that makes the same case without taking anything away from – or adding anything to – the musical genius of Mozart.

Daniel B. Gallagher