This is an extremely tricky piece to pull off in 2019, a comedy that is about holding women against their will with the hopeful expectation of romantic capitulation. Factor in the East (Muslims) versus West (Christians) undertones and well. . . anyone see the possible contemporary pitfalls here? Happily, the gifted director Michael Shell essayed the challenges, and effectively trod a fine line between a somewhat “battle of the sexes” take on the comedy and a commendably honest appraisal of two differing sets of cultural mores.
Mr. Shell has coaxed his superior cast to find the heart of their characters, to avoid off-putting stereotypes, and to embody complex, conflicted human beings. The humor is derived from well-intended, honestly motivated mismatching rather than the underlying misogyny. The latter is certainly found in the piece, but the director commendably uses it as cultural background, not a #MeToo statement, allowing the audience to draw its own conclusion.
Knowing that the serious moments of reflection will play better contrasted to a light touch elsewhere, Michael discovers every moment he can to conjure up humor with playful stage business, scrappy physical confrontations, and a tongue in cheek nod to the absurdity of the premise. The well-judged, fluid blocking resulted in stage pictures that morphed spontaneously into attractive tableaus. In the end, the cumulative effect of Shell’s direction, resulting in the believable benevolence of Pasha Selim forgave whatever hijinks may have come before.
That the denouement worked so affectingly was largely owing to Nathan Stark’s star turn as Selim. Never mind that Mr. Stark has one of the finest voices in the business, he doesn’t sing a note in this one! Ah, but what he does have in abundance is star quality. And comic sensibilities. He has a way of making self-absorbed characters appealingly unaware of their ridiculous pomposity. And Nathan has a charisma that can fill out a potentially one-dimensional personage to ingratiate himself not only to an audience, but to other characters on stage. I don’t have to go out on much of a limb to say that Nathan Stark is the most enjoyable Pasha Selim of my experience. He is in great company with the superb cast of singers who DO sing.
Constanze is an Everest of a role, written by young Wolfgang with arguably more abandon than consistently good vocal sense. It has daunted many a practitioner, not least of which the great Joan Sutherland who famously withdrew from a new Met production being mounted especially for her because she just couldn’t get it in her voice. On this occasion, the role held no fear for the highly accomplished soprano Rebecca Davis, whose limpid, often fluty singing was not only beautifully judged but also uncannily even in production.
Ms. Davis was in complete charge of a performance that included fiery, accurate coloratura pyrotechnics, jaw-dropping ease shifting registers, heartfelt outpourings of love for Belmonte, and heartbreaking protestations to Selim. This was one of those rare Constanze traversals that perfectly matched artist with role, a bravura achievement.
Matthew Grills was a totally commendable Belmonte. A light-voiced tenor who has also performed Pedrillo, Mr. Grills has a honeyed sound that can indeed also encompass the meatier demands of Belmonte’s heroic music, especially in a house the size of the California Theatre, which is very congenial to young lyric singers. His fluid phrasing and pulsating, arching sense of line ably informed the role, and his assured rendition of Ich baue ganz for once left us wanting more.
Ashraf Sewailam was anything but the usual caricature as a handsome, determined Osmin. Mr. Sewailam has all the rumbling low notes in order as he must relentlessly drill below the staff (youthful Wolfgang again!), but in the mid and upper range his burly bass blooms with compelling beauty. When Osmin does need to stutter or bluster, Ashraf is up to the momentary bouts with low (pun intended) comedy. He pulls of the neat trick of being sympathetic because his Osmin utterly clueless that he is somewhat despicable.
Completing the cast, Katrina Galka was a pert, silver-toned Blonde. Part hellion, part Gloria Steinem, part Kewpie doll, the attractive Ms. Galka’s enjoyably animated antics were a perfect balance to Constanze’s comparatively sedate presence. Moreover, Katrina has a sound technique, innate musicality, and ravishing soprano that delights the ears and touches the heart. Michael Dailey was a strapping, handsome Pedrillo that was quite pleasantly cast against the usual type. No second banana he, Mr. Dailey’s well-schooled, appealing tenor had substantial body and he deployed it winningly in crafting a character the held his own in this gifted cast. Andrew Whitfield’s full-throated chorus completed the ensemble.
George Manahan conducted a knowing reading in the pit, one that admirably relaxed into a stylish interpretation after just a bit of stiffness in the opening instrumental pages. Maestro Manahan has a fine understanding of the pace and arc of the piece, and his instrumentalists responded with a polished panache. The instances of transparent ensemble and solo passages were especially revelatory.
Opera San Jose can be counted on to produce accomplished physical productions and this was no exception. Set designer Steven Kemp’s lavish, richly detailed Moorish structures and plentitude of flora elicited well-deserved gasps and bursts of applause. Not to be outdone, Ulises Alcala dazzled the eye with a diverse array of colorful Turkish garb balanced by more sedate, well-tailored Western travel clothes. Pamela Z. Gray’s diverse, responsive lighting design was notable not only for its rich washes and area lighting, but also for abruptly highlighting sudden asides by Pasha and almost immediately restoring. Christina Martin’s accomplished make-up and wig design was a notable contribution, especially her visual transformation of Mr. Stark into Pasha Selim.
This interpretation found the dialogue performed in English with the vocals all performed in German, seeming just a bit artistically schizophrenic. I know there is a history of such practice (Fledermaus, anyone?) but for my money, pick one and stick to it. Never you mind, the opening night audience had more than plenty to cheer, and cheer they did. The conviviality and festive atmosphere spilled over well into the evening with a lively 35th opening night party.
For the company’s Mozart enthusiasts who clamored for The Abduction from the Seraglio to finally join the roster, this polished, ebullient performance surely proved worth the wait.
Cast and production information:
Konstanze: Rebecca Davis; Blonde: Katrina Galka: Belmonte; Matthew Grills; Osmin: Ashraf Sewailam; Pedrillo: Michael Dailey; Pasha Selim: Nathan Stark; Conductor: George Manahan; Director: Michael Shell; Set Design: Steven Kemp; Costume Design: Ulises Alcala; Lighting Design: Pamila Z. Gray; Wigs/Makeup Design: Christina Martin; Chorus Master: Andrew Whitfield
image_description=Rebecca Davis as Konstanze [Photo by Pat Kirk]
product_title=OSJ: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Harem
product_by=A review by James Sohre
product_id=Above: Rebecca Davis as Konstanze [Photo by Pat Kirk]