Die Entf¸hrung aus den Serail, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

In 1781, having finally shaken off his over-bearing father, Mozart found
himself in Vienna, a city which had previously welcomed and feted him as a
prodigious child performer but which had little knowledge of his early operatic
successes; or, indeed, awareness of his operatic ambitions. When Gottleib
Stephanie the Younger, a successful actor and dramatist who had recently taken
charge of the National Singspiel in Vienna, happened to give the young composer
a libretto to consider, Mozart’s interest was immediately stimulated, and
he wrote enthusiastically to his father of about his new ‘Turkish’
project. The subject matter was ‘convenient’ for the intended
occasion of the premiere was the state visit in September by Grand Duke Paul
Petrovich of Russia and his wife, in order to devise a clandestine agreement
that would allow Austria and Russia to begin dividing up the Ottoman Empire.

Although, in the event, Mozart’s opera was not completed in time for
the diplomatic visit, its colonial, propagandistic overtones can sit uneasily
with modern audiences. Add to this the idiosyncrasies of the singspiel genre,
and it is perhaps not surprising that performances of this opera are relatively
rare. However, it contains many delights, and this concert performance of a new
translation and narration, commissioned from Simon Butteriss by the Orchestra
of the Age of Enlightenment, tackled the potential problems bravely, and with
striking wit and panache.

This may be opera seria, but Butteriss has adopted an altogether
more ambiguous mode; his translation and narration are wry, self-referential,
and self-knowing. This might have proved tiresome, but in the fairly intimate
setting of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, among a musically knowledgeable audience,
he struck just the right note.

Much of the credit for the success of this performance must go to conductor
Bernard Labadie, who moved the action swiftly on, whipping up a dramatic
momentum and comic immediacy from his performers. The overture was pacy,
perhaps overly so, but Labadie managed the extraordinary integration of the
overture and opening scene with aplomb, controlling the transition between the
multi-section, multi-tempi overture and the first aria most skilfully and
establishing a dramatic vitality which was sustained throughout the
performance. Without undue exaggeration, Labadie drew striking contrasts from
his orchestra: a piquant piccolo and oboe complemented the interesting, nuanced
timbres of the trumpets and horns, and enthusiastic string playing provided a
springy foundation for woodwind colourings. Moreover, Labadie maintained a good
balance between instrumentalists and singers, particularly in the
concertante-style numbers. In particular, in ‘Martern aller
Arten’ — which is practically a sinfonia concertante for
voice and instruments — Susan Gritton’s voice swelled
magnificently, but the soloist remained only one of several solo

The young French-Canadian tenor FrÈdÈric Antoun displayed a beautifully
smooth line, as the fervent Belmonte, and would undoubtedly have won the heart
of Constanze with ease. After some initial wobbles of intonation, he settled
effortlessly into the suavity of the role, his ardent tone adding weight and
variety of colour. Dramatically relaxed throughout, Antoun’s aria,
‘Ich baue ganz auf deine St‰rke’, was particularly impressive.

As Pedrillo, Tilman Lichdi demonstrated a sharp sense of wit (the risk of
overkill was just about kept at bay), but his important serenade, ‘In
Mohrenland gefangen war’, presented a welcome contrast and was expertly
controlled and shaped.

Alastair Miles was a last-minute substitute for Timothy Mirfin in the role
of Osmin, and this may explain his occasional air of overly serious
concentration. While he used his face expressively, his need to read from the
score did rather detach him from the relaxed immediacy of Lichdi’s and
Antoun’s confident partnership. Miles gave a solid performance, and
articulated the text well, but found the lower regions of the role quite

Susan Gritton, as Constanze, demonstrated the stunningly beautiful lyricism
for which she is renowned and negotiated the intricacies with ease, although
she didn’t always pay sufficient attention to the openings and endings of
phrases. Faced with the comic capers of Pedrillo, Blonde and Osmin, Gritton
effectively established the dignity of the role. She clutched a score, her
thumb marking the page, throughout, although it remained closed; as Gritton has
previously recorded this work it made one wonder why this was necessary as it
was a little distracting. Moreover, her diction was rather careless. Denigrated
as “hack work” by Mozart scholars such as William Mann, and
disparaged by Edward Dent as the “very worst [libretto Mozart] ever set
to music”, the text here was sung in German with English subtitles. Even
if we allow that the verse may be execrable, it still would have been nice to
have consistently heard the German enunciated clearly and crisply.

Malin Christensson had a battle to complement Gritton’s vocal weight,
particularly in the ensembles where the latter projected powerfully and with
poise; but as Blonde, Christensson gave a convincing, committed reading of the
strong-minded servant and sang sweetly, with vivacious animation.

The Joyful Company of Singers waited patiently for their brief chorus at the
end of Act 1; in the event, they were rather subdued, lacking the necessary
lightness and energy — although this may have been a result of their
positioning, at the rear of the stage, which made it difficult to project over
the vibrant orchestral fanfares.

Butterriss’ obvious enthusiasm for this opera was contagious; his
urbane narration, slickly sliding between comedy and seriousness, banished any
sense of the potential discomforts or difficulties of the singspiel genre, and
drew committed performances from his colleagues. Overall this was an enchanting
evening, one which made one long for a full staging of this opera.

Claire Seymour

image_description=Susan Gritton [Photo courtesy of Askonas Holt]
product_title=W. A. Mozart: Die Entf¸hrung aus den Serail
product_by=Belmonte: FrÈdÈric Antoun; Pedrillo: Tilman Lichdi; Constanze: Susan Gritton; Blonde: Malin Christensson; Osmin: Alastair Miles. Narrator: Simon Butteriss. The Joyful Company of Singers. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Conductor: Bernard Labadie. Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, Wednesday, 24 November 2010.
product_id=Above: Susan Gritton [Photo courtesy of Askonas Holt]