Geneva’s thought-provoking production of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Mozart, Die Entführung aus dem Serail: Soloists, Chorus of the Geneva Grand Théâtre, (chorus master: Alan Woodbridge), Orchestre de la Suisse Romande / Fabio Biondi  (conductor). Grand Théâtre de Genève, 26.1.2020. (ALL)

Die Entführung aus dem Serail (c) Carole Parodi

Director – Luk Perceval
Assistant – Hannah Gelesz
Scenography – Philip Bussman
Costumes – Ilse Vandenbussche
Choreography – Ted Stoffer
Lighting – Mark Van Denesse
Dramaturgy – Luc Joosten

Constance – Olga Pudova
Blondchen – Claire de Sévigné
Belmonte – Julien Behr
Pedrillo – Denzil Delaere
Osmin – Nahuel di Pierro
Constance older – Françoise Vercrussen
Blondchen older – Iris Tenge
Belmonte older – Joris Bultynck
Osmin older – Patric Luc Doumeyrou

After fairly neutral borrowed productions of Verdi’s Aïda and Monteverdi’s Orfeo, this Die Entführung aus dem Serail showed Geneva audiences what modern re-readings of major works can be.

The Grand Théâtre director Aviel Cahn knew that it was an important milestone in his first season. In his opening press conference, he had insisted on choosing works that could reflect on the position of Geneva. He explained that he had asked the Turkish human rights activist Aslıe Erdoğan to rewrite the spoken text of the work and hinted at the importance of the task.

Aslı Erdoğan now lives in exile in Austria after being imprisoned in her native Turkey for several months. It was during her time working on the Higgs particle at the CERN in Geneva in 1991-92 that she wrote of the loneliness of being away from her country.

The texts, which are the basis for this rewriting, were spoken by actors representing older versions of the characters in the opera. The overall themes were looking for love and … growing old. There was no seraglio – prison. This was neither a political nor a comic reading. Old Osmin was an aggressive misogynist, a bitter old man crippled in a wheelchair, which fits well with the texts of his various arias. Both ladies, Constance and Blondchen, expressed different facets of women looking for love. A street demonstration was held in support of one Pasha Selim. For the concept to work, one had to forget about past productions and regard this staging as a new work.

There were changes to the music and several cuts, not always justified. The Osmin–Blondchen duo should have been kept. An interruption during the lovely quartet – for spoken dialogues explaining the change of mood – could and should have been avoided. But the use of a moving slow aria from Ascanio in Alba was a subtle low-key ending coherent with the overall concept.

Producer Luk Perceval, who had previously worked with Aviel Cahn, was an inspired choice. The Personenregie was effective and not overdone. Action and concepts were easy to follow. Actors moved with flair. The producer added several nice and subtle little touches. Every significant movement had meaning, from the flow of young people running around slow-moving aged actors, to Blondchen shrugging her shoulders when passing near her elders during her ‘Welche Wonne, welche Lust’ aria. Nothing was over the top, not even the many vulgarities and provocations of old Osmin, a reading that was both tasteful and intelligent.

Mozart is always best served not by stars but by a coherent team. The cast on stage on this occasion was young and balanced. Russian Olga Pudova tackled what is perhaps the most difficult role Mozart ever wrote. She showed understandable signs of fatigue towards the end but displayed her capabilities in the glorious ‘Alle Arten’ aria. At her side, Canadian Claire de Sévigné has a thinner voice but she nailed the devilishly difficult high C and cut a charming figure. Julien Behr struggled with the tessitura and was perhaps a bit wooden, but phrased beautifully. Denzil Delaere was a well-defined Pedrillo, while Nahuel di Pierro’s Osmin was more of a baritone than a bass.

In the pit, baroque specialist Fabio Biondi made his debut at the Grand Théâtre. His reading was uneven. There was enjoyable energy in a few places, but tempi changes that broke the pulse were all too audible and he should have been more attentive to some of the singers.

At the premiere, critics expressed unusually negative feelings towards this production, and it seems that some members of audience booed, which almost never happens in Switzerland. This was undeserved. This production is an extremely demanding re-writing of the work, the result of a serious effort. It is likely to go down as the first major work of the new Aviel Cahn era and a sign of his ambitions for Geneva.

This afternoon performance was the second of the series. it was filmed for the TV channel Arte and can be viewed by clickgin here. Do not (always) trust the critics, be they positive or negative. Visit the Grand Théâtre or watch the production online, and make up your own mind.

Antoine Lévy-Leboyer

1 thought on “Geneva’s thought-provoking production of Mozart’s <i>Die Entführung aus dem Serail</i>”

  1. Yes, there were people booing! I started, and it was perfectly deserved.

    If this absurdity was staged in Parma or in Milan, where people know opera, boos would have probably started at the very first disruption of music by the added nonsense. They would not have been able to go on with the performance.

    This said, the fact is not against the rewriting per se. What’s the sense of these monologues? Not to talk about the ridicolous contribution of Aslı Erdogan: the “extremely demanding rewriting” was to copy some passages from her book! I can imagine her effort choosing randomly what to insert. The great work was probably 10 minutes long. I want to know how much did she get for doing this.

    But where is Mozart? Come on, it’s a Singspiel. We want a good story. You can change time and place, you can change some dialogues, but we want a serail, an abduction, love, a bad Osmin and a good Selim. Not another boring reflection on life, universe and everything. Or, worse, this pseudo-profound bullshit.

    And of course speaking about the staging is the good idea to avoid speaking about the music. Starting from the erroneous casting of singers (Di Pierro is a good bass, but couldn’t reach Osmin’s low D) or the imprecise coloraturas of Pudova. And the orchestra with serious problems of going together. And the terrible choir. And the cuts, which, in 2020 are never, never, NEVER justified, whatever goes on on stage.

    You cannot find a solution for the finale? So your reading is wrong. And the solution is not to change the finale, but to change your reading of the opera.


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