Zurich Opera’s Die Entführung is an Exercise in Cleverness

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Mozart, Die Entführung aus dem Serail: Soloists and Chorus of the Opernhaus Zürich, Orchestra La Scintilla / Riccardo Minasi (conductor), Opernhaus Zürich, Zurich, 21.10.2018. (CCr)

Die Entführung aus dem Serail (c) Tanja Dorendorf


Konstanze – Brenda Rae
Blonde – Claire de Sévigné
Belmonte – Daniel Behle
Pedrillo – Spencer Lang
Osmin – Nahuel Di Pierro
Bassa Selim – Stephan Gubser


Director – David Hermann
Set designer – Bettina Meyer
Costume designer – Esther Geremus
Lighting – Franck Evin
Sound – Malte Preuss
Choir director – Janko Kastelic
Dramaturgy – Beate Breidenbach

What do you do on the stage for an opera that has a dopey story, is sort of racist, and has tons of spoken dialogue? You probably don’t even bother, unless said work is composed by Mozart, has gorgeous arias, and constitutes the first real German opera. This is the conundrum that faces audiences and opera houses alike with Die Entführung aus dem Serail, the abduction from the seraglio, seraglios being cages for sexual slavery. (What is it with all these politely veiled operatic references to prostitution and bondage?) One’s choice is either to play down the inconvenient parts discreetly and try to leave the thing somewhat intact, or to go for broke and use Mozart’s music as putty in your hands to do something altogether different, and hope it works.

This production by David Hermann (a revival from the 2016 season; see my colleague John Rhodes’s review of the première here) did go for broke, except not really as much as it could have, and did do something altogether different. Without saying it doesn’t work, it feels more of an exercise in cleverness than something truly engrossing or compelling.

The central conceit: Konstanze and Belmonte are a modern couple going through a rough patch; dinner at a swanky restaurant just makes things worse. This hapless Belmonte has Proustian fits of jealousy, fearing that Konstanze may be seeing another man (Bassa Selim), and is tortured by these thoughts, at least until his alter ego, Pedrillo, erupts. This Pedrillo psyche helps him show aggression towards Osmin, who seems to know the truth about Konstanze, or appears to block his access to her, or who simply piques his aggression because his name is Osmin and not Randy. In this production, you see, we are to feel wise at concluding from Belmonte’s example that white people can find swarthy Osmins to be scary in ways that defy reason. It’s a good point and a promising idea, but it’s stated blandly and not seen through to its logical extent. One more thing: Belmonte’s fantasy about Konstanze can even lead him to imagine her as a perfectly obedient girlfriend-robot, who appears in the form of a Konstanze-Doppelgänger named Blonde.

Read the plot synopsis of Mozart’s actual opera if it’s not immediately clear to you how drastic a shift this is from the original story, which is a swashbucklingly orientalist tale of Belmonte rescuing Konstanze and her waiting maid Blonde from the menacing Turk Bassa Selim with the help of his (Belmonte’s) servant sidekick Pedrillo. Never mind that in the original, Bassa Selim is a Spaniard who converted from Christianity to Islam, which is bizarrely the only reason why he has the requisite sliver of final benevolence in him to enable the happy ending. Never mind that in the original, Blonde is supposed to be from England, and Belmonte the son of Bassa Selim’s mortal enemy, and all sorts of other details that make the farce a farce. David Hermann, a young and intelligent director, does away with all of this – to the extent that the music and lyrics will allow, because even if he strips away all of the spoken text, the lyrics still refer to events that don’t take place and identities he cannot wish away. The result is much less psychological than is intended, and not only because the whole premise is a bit of a squeeze, but also because the staging and set (by Bettina Meyer, whose work here is just as promising and just as tepid) don’t commit to the full possibilities of their ideas. A David Lynch nod here, a hijab there, but little to really grip or sink into, despite some great moments.

In a production for which every single aria now has a new meaning, there are a few coups: An Act I trio between Osmin, Belmonte and Pedrillo takes on an electric intensity when Osmin is fighting with two conflicted versions of the same man. The singing and staging from Spencer Lang as the alter ego were at their most successful here, a bright and confident tone paired with sneering threats. Another brilliant twist: Konstanze and Belmonte, seated once again in a restaurant, singing a duet of being reunited, but not looking each other in the eye, which comes after Belmonte sings Konstanze an aria of longing, meant to be in her absence, but in this production she’s right there – the longing is from the distance between them emotionally. And one more: Since Pedrillo is just Belmonte’s id and not an actual person, there’s lots of fun to be had in the ‘Vivat Bacchus’ duet between Pedrillo and Osmin (Nahuel Di Pierro, a talented bass who nevertheless struggled with the upper range here and didn’t achieve big sound in the lowest notes where the storytelling would have benefited from it; nor could he really seem to decide between buffo and lyric singing). This Pedrillo offers Osmin wine in order to get him into bed; Belmonte arrives, sees his (male) alter ego asleep atop his (male) enemy, and comes further unravelled at the tricks his mind is playing on him.

Musically, Daniel Behle as Belmonte ranged from a little wan and nasal to lovely, sensitive, and very well intoned. Dramatically, he ranged from a little wan to very; this production puts Belmonte and his various phobias front and centre, and it needs a tenor far more committed to showing rage and paranoia and fits of cold sweats than Behle was. Brenda Rae had slightly more acting success with Konstanze, and she produced some gorgeous moments of coloratura despite losing a bit of textual clarity in her lower register. The light zing of Claire de Sévigné’s singing as Blonde went a long way, and it was a pleasure to hear how she and the production turned her silly, flirty aria ‘Durch Zärtlichkeit und Schmeicheln’ into the aforementioned Madonna/Whore fantasia gone awry. La Scintilla was excellent in the matter of accompanying singers, and perfectly lively under conductor Riccardo Minasi’s direction, though I am not sure whether it was an artistic choice or merely a shortcoming that the ‘Janissary’ sound, Mozart’s very playful and charming attempts to make the piece sound Turkish, didn’t crack as lavishly as it could or should have. Many a musical movement passed in the orchestra and the singing both where the listener was not treated to the full richness inherent in this music.

These are the sorts of productions that take risks and show both intellectual and artistic ambition towards awkward or desultory subject matter – for Entführung, a story that is nigh impossible to take at face value without yielding some sort of risqué flavour of Turkish vaudeville. But applauding the production’s aims and walking away convinced are two different things for this attempt.

The production runs until 3 November.

Casey Creel

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