Die Entf¸hrung aus dem Serail,

But, to modern directors and company it presents a host of
challenges: the extreme vocal virtuosity of the principal roles, its
juxtaposition of genres and stylistic eclecticism, and, not least, its dubious
political agendas.

At Glyndebourne, director David McVicars, directing his first Mozart opera
for the company, plays it straight, setting the opera during the time of
composition, while confirming that the clashing cultures of East and West, and
the problems which arise when they attempt to co-exist, are no less relevant
today than in 1782. For McVicars, however, Die Entf¸hrung is less
concerned with cultural value judgements than with the examination of the
various mores and social forces which are antithetical to individual freedom,
especially that of women. And, the director illuminates the way that Mozart’s
opera adopts a foreign perspective in order to critique the practices of a
supposedly enlightened European society.

McVicars’ message is communicated with a light touch, though, and vocal and
visual beauty far outweigh didacticism. Vicki Mortimer’s beguiling visual
designs are economical and efficient, synthesising the Middle East and the
Mediterranean, and combining the decorative elements of the European Baroque
and Rococo with the ornate trellises and arabesque-adorned walls and arches of
the waterside yali.

Layered sliding screens glide in geometric networks allowing glimpses of
secluded interiors — private chambers, inner and outer courtyards, alcoves,
vaults — their pierced openwork and tracery permitting in shards of light and
air. Between the weathered stone faÁade and the ocean-fringed rear terrace, we
gain an impression of the vast expanse of the Pasha’s mansion, from the
basement kitchen to the recesses of the intimate boudoir, via stairwells and
passageways, to the elegant topiaried rose garden. Paule Constable’s lighting
creates subtle shifts of solid and void, a play of sunlight and shadow, and
through the intersecting polygons of the latticework we glimpse the secret
movements of the seraglio — a world which is populated by the Pasha’s wives,
children, concubines and eunuchs, overseen by the imperial guard. Constable’s
lighting is also effective in merely hinting at the sensuousness of the
seraglio; colour is used sparingly — the boudoir burns with an opulent red
glow, flame-topped columns flicker agitatedly through Osmin’s gloating
celebration — and it is the formality and decorum of the Ottoman world which
is emphasised rather than its exotic or erotic excesses.

McVicars neatly balances movement and tableaux. Counter-posing
crockery-throwing tantrums, bacchanalian dissipation, and clumsy ladder-born
escapades are carefully composed visual portraits. Thus, their flight
interrupted by a vengeful Osmin, Belmonte and Konstanza say their final
farewells as they await the Pasha’s dreaded judgement, ‘Welch ein Geschick! O
Qual der Seele’ (What dreadful fate conspires against us). Beside and beyond
them, Pedrillo and Blonde cower, watched over by the scimitar-wielding vigilant
guard, and the overall effect of the composition recalls the paintings of
Eugene Delacroix. The final vignette frames the Pasha within a monumental
portal, silhouetted against the sparkling blue-black Bosphorus; as he
affectionately bears one of his small children aloft, his gaze poignantly
follows the lovers’ ship as they sail to their freedom.

The production also effectively blends frivolity and genuine menace. The
humour is judiciously measured: there are outlandish gestures which take us by
surprise — Osmin’s inebriated belly-slide along the stretched table, or the
exuberant cartwheel with which he anticipates and celebrates his triumphant
hour in Act 3 — but also small touches which raise a gentle laugh:
‘exhibited’ on a three-legged stool, sporting a fancy frock coat and feathered
hat as Blonde attempts to ‘civilise’ him, Osmin shows more interest in the
tiered tray of dainty cakes on the table beside him, than in becoming the
‘European gentleman’ who might have a chance of winning her heart. But,
alongside the humour is terrorising aggression: we are reminded of Osmin’s
brutality, and his power, when he savagely demands ‘love’ from Blonde —
unlike his master, he entirely lacks compassion and virtue. And, although the
conventions of the genre may reassure us that the lovers will ultimately be
forgiven by the high-minded, magnanimous Pasha, there is a threatening tension
as we wait to learn their fate.

Lithuanian tenor Edgaras Montvidas, last year’s Lensky, returns to the house
to tackle the demanding role of Belmonte. Montvidas seemed nervous in his
opening aria: his tenor was rather tight and unyielding, and he struggled to
shape the phrases with requisite graceand to control the expressive
upward chromatic inflections. The tension, however, did fittingly convey
Belmont’s inner conflict, torn as he is between his fervent hopes of seeing his
beloved Konstanze again and his fretful fear that she may not have remained
faithful under the duress of the Pasha’s passionate advances.

However, while his tone is not the most seductively lyrical, Montvidas
displayed greater vocal suppleness as the opera proceeded, coping well with the
high range, and the pliant phrases of his Act 3 aria, ‘Ich baue ganz auf deine
St‰rke’ (Love, only love, can now direct me) demonstrated excellent breath
control. Throughout he acted with thoughtfulness, ever the elegant Spanish

Sally Matthews, as Konstanze, also grew into the part. It’s a formidable
role with its taxing diversity of moods and styles, extensive coloratura, wide
range, and stamina-sapping Act 2 show-stopper ‘Martern aller Arten’ (Tortures
of all kinds), in which the action pauses for 10 minutes while Konstanze
delivers music of astonishing virtuosity to ensure that the Pasha recognises
her unassailable honour.

Konstanze also embodies one of the opera’s more general problems; that is,
the need to integrate the seria style within a Singspiel. And, this
difficulty was apparent in Matthews’ first aria, ‘Ach ich liebte’ (How I loved
him), where her somewhat hard, glinty tone seemed at odds with the ardency
Belmonte’s preceding aria, in which he vows to rescue her, and the jubilant
warmth of the chorus of Janissaries which welcomes the Pasha’s arrival.
However, her Act 2 lament ‘Welcher Wechsel herrscht in meiner Seele’ (Oh what
sorrow overwhelms my spirit) was more dramatically direct, and the
fioritura fireworks of ‘Martern aller Arten’ served not only as a
demonstration of technical brilliance but were employed expressively to reveal
Konstanze’s emotional schisms and distress.

The aria also introduced what I found a questionable line of argument: for
this Konstanze seemed rather too attracted to the dark and dashing Pasha, the
respect and esteem that she avers coming close to outright adoration and sexual
desire as gazed with intense longing into his dusky eyes. How is one to
interpret her protestation, ‘Nothing, nothing, nothing — nothing will shake
me!’? Honourable defiance or an attempt to deter her own wavering heart from
temptation? Though her emotions have undoubtedly been moved by the Pasha’s
nobility, surely the aria’s long instrumental introduction and Konstanze’s own
tender appeal to his benevolence, ‘Let yourself be moved, spare me, and may
heaven’s blessing be your reward’, suggests a woman of heroic forbearance and
courage, who sees her suffering as a trial to test her love for Belmonte?

McVicars, however, imagines her declaration as an almost sadistic,
manipulative rebuke. The Mozart scholar, Alfred Einstein, criticising what he
saw as the aria’s excessive length, once described the number as a ‘long piece
of heroic virtuosity to which the poor Pasha simply is compelled to listen’,
and the Pasha’s presence on stage throughout does present dramatic
difficulties. But, even Einstein could not have imagined that Konstanze would
dismiss her master’s threatened tortures and refuse to yield to his demands all
the while caressing his naked chest as the Pasha pants and palpitates. His
after-words, ‘Is this a dream? Where does she get the courage to behave in such
a manner towards me?’, suggests a man transfixed by her dignity and elevated
righteousness, which deflect him from force to stratagem. Moreover, the
apparent boldness of Konstanze’s desire made her subsequent angry refutations
of Belmonte’s suspicions less than credible, and weakened the contrast between
her own steadfastness and the less constant pragmatism of Blonde. This was a
shame as musically the Act 2 finale was a highlight of the production, moving
persuasively from elation, through doubt and indignation, to

In the comprimario roles of Blonde and Pedrillo,
Norwegian soprano Mari Eriksmoen and American tenor Brenden Gunnell, almost
upstaged the principals. Both displayed impeccable comic timing and nuance, and
their fresh, alluring singing inspired affection. Gunnell’s Pedrillo was a
resourceful, boisterous scallywag with a warm heart and an understandable
concern to save his own skin. His exuberant delight at arrival of Belmonte was
infectious, a perfect foil for his master’s refinement, and his final tentative
requests for mercy — after all, he’s been a loyal servant — understandably
disarming. Gunnell’s lovely warm tone and relaxed naturalness made his folksy
Act 3 Serenade a real treat, and his tenor was coloured with baritonal tints
which nicely countered Belmonte’s high register.

As the stripy-stockinged Blonde (a nod, perhaps, towards the ‘bluestockings’
who during the 1750s became a leading force for enlightened feminism?),
Eriksmoen combined the feisty attitudes and sharp tongue of a champion for
female equality with the manipulative guile of a servant wench. Her first aria,
‘Durch Z‰rtlichkeit und Schmeicheln’ (With smiles and kind caresses), in which
she sets out the strategy for success in courtship — tenderness and flattery,
not terror and force, are the way to a to the European woman’s heart
was sweet-toned, cleanly delivered and charming. But, should we be
tempted to see Blonde as the opera’s voice of reason, her comical irrationality
and emotional instability were immediately exposed by her hysterical threats to
scratch Osmin’s eyes out.

German bass Tobias Kehrer was a terrific Osmin: a blond-dreadlocked oaf,
whose genuine feelings are suppressed by his inarticulacy and brutishness, he
prowled the palace like a frustrated Heathcliff — without the romantic hero’s
redeeming good looks — a Caliban of the citadel, whose Ottoman ear was,
unlike Shakespeare’s ‘beast’, ill-tuned to its civilised music. Unable to
comprehend, let alone communicate, the hurt caused by Blonde’s contemptuous
rejection of his advances, Kehrer’s Osmin retreats to cold-hearted callousness,
wallowing in violent, vengeful fantasies of ‘poison and daggers’. He delights
in vandalising Pedrillo’s gracious topiary, snipping the secateurs with glee
and maliciously squashing the round top-piece, presumably as he imagines
crushing Pedrillo’s own head. But, when we have witnessed his humiliation at
the hands of Blonde, who mocks his masculinity, and Pedrillo, who tricks him
into breaking his Muslim vow to forswear alcohol, who could not feel some pity
when, bewildered by the compassion of the master he has loyally served, Osmin
lays down his scimitar and departs, isolated and irredeemable?

Kehrer was not tested by the extensive range of the role, and the suavity of
his subterranean notes, complemented by hints of a softness buried deep in his
heart, were intriguing and moderated our distaste for his pitilessness. This
was a vocally and dramatically commanding performance.

The spoken role of Pasha Selim is a tough one to bring off, for while the
absence of song emphasises the Pasha’s difference, it is difficult to create a
convincing, three-dimensional character in the absence of the music which
humanises and defines the other characters. However, Franck Saurel did much to
convey the Pasha’s noble civility and self-controlled reserve, and his final
declaration of clemency — ‘It is a far greater pleasure to repay injustice
with a good deed than to repay one depravity with another’ — surprised both
the Christians and the Turks, suggesting that the opera is less concerned with
cultural judgements and more with the nature of human goodness. That Konstanze
will indeed regret turning him down was intimated by the ardent kiss she
bestowed before the lovers’ departure, as a troubled Belmont turned his gaze

Conducted by Robin Ticciati, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment made
evident the profundity of the music. Ticciati negotiated the intricate
structures — the long ritornelli introductions, the complicated
instrumental dialogues with the voices, the independence of the contrapuntal
vocal lines in the ensembles — cogently, and made the wealth of thematic
material and diverse orchestral colours clear and well-defined. The
instrumental concertante lines in ‘Martern aller Arten’ and Belmonte’s
‘Ich baue ganz auf deine St‰rke’ entwined enchantingly around the solo voices.
The sudden fortes of the overture erupted like a bursts of sunlight
and the warmth and brightness was sustained throughout.

The Glyndebourne Chorus — comprising the Pasha’s harem and guard, and a
host of hopeful hangers-on seeking the Pasha’s patronage — sang lustily in
the final chorus of praise to their master. The ending sparkled with the
vitality of youth and love, and shone with the heroism of honour. At the first
performance, Emperor Joseph reportedly remarked to Mozart that there were an
‘extraordinary number of notes’. This charismatic and compelling Glyndebourne
production suggests that he may have been right: that these copious riches form
music which is indeed almost ‘too beautiful for our ears’.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Konstanze, Sally Matthews; Belmonte, Edgaras Montvidas; Osmin, Tobias
Kehrer; Blonde, Mari Eriksmoen; Pedrillo, Brenden Gunnell; Klass, a sea
captain, Jonas Cradock; Mute, Adrian Richards; The Guard, Daniel Vernon;
Conductor, Robin Ticciati; Director, David McVicar; Designer, Vicki Mortimer;
Choreographer, Andrew George; Lighting Designer, Paule
Constable; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, The Glyndebourne Chorus.
Glyndebourne Festival Opera, Saturday 13th June 2015.

image_description=Sally Matthews [Photo © Johan Persson]
product_title=Die Entf¸hrung aus dem Serail, Glyndebourne
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Sally Matthews [Photo © Johan Persson]