Abduction from the Seraglio, Philadelphia

Despite its robust comedy, technical difficulty, and
occasional exoticism, Mozart’s music is youthfully transparent. His fresh
score transforms eternal stereotypes—two noble lovers, a spunky English maid
with her enthusiastic if naÔve boyfriend, and the crude barbarian overseer who
would thwart them—into uniquely memorable individuals whose feelings we seem
to intuit directly.

This emotional honesty poses a challenge for theater directors, whose
attitude toward this work has changed several times in my experience. Until
well into the second half of the 20th century (and in provincial performances
still), Abduction was presented as a robustly German comic romp.
Several generations ago, Giorgio Strehler and others sought to elevate such
productions by stripping away tired slapstick routines to reveal the full range
and depth of underlying humanist sentiments. Over time, however, most such
productions came to focus excessively a stylized dilemma facing Konstanze
whether to love Bassa Selim or Belmonte—despite the lack of any textual or
musical support for an inner conflict. Over the past decade, the opera has
gained new notoriety as the object of Regietheater excess. In search
of an underlying social message, Calixto Bieito famously set it as a dystopic
story about human trafficking, featuring masturbation, oral sex, urination, and
much violence. In a much discussed scene, Osmin hacks up a whore and offers her
bloody, severed nipples to Konstanze—an interpretation widely criticized for
violating the spirit of Mozart’s music.

Philadelphia’s new production (shared with Treviso) faces the
Abduction challenge with a new and intriguing conceit. It resurrects
the notion of a “rescue opera”—a popular 18th formula, of which this
opera is an example, whereby noble Europeans are saved from oppression and
bondage—and seeks to update it with stock characters, styles and settings
from silent movies. The Seraglio becomes Constantinople in 1918 (the
supertitles anachronistically call it Istanbul), Bassa Selim becomes Ataturk,
and Konstanze becomes a British spy seeking to pry secrets from the Turks
during World War I. It suggests a fresh set of images, drawn from an era with
which a modern audience can better identify, yet also in which individuality,
femininity, and the relationship between East and West were being redefined in
interesting ways. A promising premise…

Abduction_Phil_03.gifAntonio Lozano as Belmonte, Elizabeth Zharoff as Konstanze, Elizabeth Reiter as Blonde and Krystian Adam as Pedrillo

Yet the production only skims the surface of the concept, with tame results.
By the end of the overture, the spy story disappears (just as well, since
Konstanze is no spy). At times the background features a silent movie, but this
is applied randomly, rather than being exploited consistently to underscore the
action. Surely it would not have been hard to find engaging parallels: Belmonte
and Konstanze, as well as Pedrillo and Blonde, do resemble the virtuous couples
who inhabit silent films, while Osmin does recall villains like Chaplin’s
“Big Eric.” Yet the projections provide little more than local color:
generic scenes and, at the end, just a quarter hour shot of an old postcard of
Hagia Sofia. Beyond the backdrop, the production is remarkably old-fashioned,
even provincial, with overheavy reliance on crude gags, garish costumes, and
harem girls. A quarter of an hour in, watching Osmin, clad in bright yellow,
chasing Pedrillo with a whip, one acknowledges it will be a long afternoon.

Still, a major advantage of the unconventional “movie screen” set design
is its theatrical and acoustical intimacy—a plus in this intimate work. It
pushes action to the front of the stage, where two ramps permit the singers to
cross through the first row of the audience. Thus the burden rests on the
singers to carry the show. Yet here, too, the performance gets stuck half-way.
Today there is no shortage of great Baroque and Mozart singers, yet one rarely
encounters a major house cast as uneven as this one.

Abduction_Phil_04.gifKrystian Adam is Pedrillo with Per Bach Nissen as Osmin

Young soprano and Curtis student Elizabeth Zharoff possesses a warm, even,
and well-placed voice, solid coloratura technique, and considerable innate
musicality that could take her far in the opera world—and she looks good on
stage. Yet Konstanze is a bit of a stretch. In her mid-20s, Zharoff does not
quite yet possess the weight and vocal glamor for showpieces like “Martern
aller Arten” or “Ach ich liebte” in a big house. She would be more
appropriately cast as Pamina, which she will sing next year in Philadelphia.

Never before have I heard a Belmonte who sounds more comfortable in “Ich
baue ganz”—the Act III aria often ducked by even the best tenors due to its
daunting technical difficulties—than in the two more famous arias of Act I.
Spanish Tenor Antonio Lozano brings many things to the role—a voice of
reasonable size, clean passagework, and an ardent manner—but not what the
role of Belmonte requires above all else, namely noble phrasing and smoothly
elegant vocal production. Uneven color and intonation, as well as
Spanish-accented German that seems not that of a speaker (let alone native
speaker) of the language, weigh him down musically and theatrically.

Polish tenor Krystian Adam sings and acts superbly in the character role of
Pedrillo. The young Curtis grad (now in Frankfurt) Elizabeth Reiter is, as her
previous work with Philadelphia has shown, a splendid singer on her way up. She
sings with a full tone, compelling phrasing, and precise intonation. Yet she
seems vocally uncomfortable as Blˆndchen, a role Mozart crafted especially for
a soubrette with unusually free high notes. Singers with the dark bass
voice for Osmin are an endangered species. Nissen sings Osmin at a solid
European provincial level, but lacks a booming low D or any other special
attribute for the role, though his diction is the best in the show.

Music director Corrado Rovaris conducts crisply, in a style aimed somewhere
between the modern and period, and only occasionally let the ensemble slip. Yet
the result is neither idiosyncratic nor idiomatic. One waits in vain for the
rubato or graceful turn of phrase that would breathe life into this wonderful

Andrew Moravcsik

image_description=Elizabeth Zharoff as Konstanze, with Peter Dolder as Pasha Selim and Antonio Lozano as Belmonte [Photo by Kelly & Massa Photography courtesy of Opera Company of Philadelphia]
product_title=W. A. Mozart: Abduction from the Seraglio
product_by=Click here for cast and other production information.
product_id=Above: Elizabeth Zharoff as Konstanze, with Peter Dolder as Pasha Selim and Antonio Lozano as Belmonte

Photos by Kelly & Massa Photography courtesy of Opera Company of Philadelphia