Updated productions of an opera can do wonders to reach modern audiences. By ditching the powdered wigs and huge dresses, a Mozart opera no longer feels like a museum piece, or a quintessential diversion of the elite; if done properly (and this is the “opera”-tive phrase), it can make the opera relevant to today’s audiences while preserving the work’s original freshness and vitality. It takes vision and iron-clad artistic sense to straddle this tightrope between the past and the present, but all too often, the result falls short and the production comes across as pretentious, gimmicky, and downright bizarre (or some combination of the three).
When I went to see the Opera Company of Philadelphia’s production of Mozart’s Abduction From the Seraglio last week, this is the impression I left with. Admittedly, I only stayed for the first act, because I’m not sure how much more I could have endured (good thing the tickets I got were free). It is a comic opera that was one of Mozart’s major successes, and one of the earliest examples of an opera sung in German (as opposed to Italian). Basically it is the story of a woman, Konstanze held captive in a Turkish palace, and is rescued by her lover, Belmonte after much coercing of an abrasive overseer. Concurrently, we have a romantic subplot between Pedrillo and Blonde, Konstanze’s fellow captives. The setting in the “exotic” land of Turkey, the comical patter of the characters, and of course Mozart’s sparkling music (which inspired the possibly apocryphal “too many notes” story immortalized in “Amadeus”) made this a hit with 18th century audiences, and has gained its rightful place in the operatic repertoire.
Okay, so far so good. Naturally, in today’s global society, Turkey no longer has the same allure it did in the Mozart’s time, but it contains wonderful music and a charming love story. How does the OCP reconcile these two elements? They set it in 1918, just five years before the fall of the Ottoman Empire. This, I will say, was a brilliant idea; it is not in the too-distant past, but it is just modern enough to appeal to the 21st century. Belmonte is a Spanish pilot, and Konstanze is a spy for the Allied Forces who becomes friendly with Bassa Selim (modeled on Ataturk, who worked to create the Turkish state after the war).
This, unfortunately, is the OCP production’s only merit; the silent-movie backdrop, showing us scenes in the Turkish nightclub where Konstanze and Bassa meet, becomes a well-worn cliche after about 10 minutes (at the point, the images become uncomfortably ridiculous and unnecessary). Belmonte’s voice barely reached the high notes, making for some uncomfortable passages, and Konstanze’s voice was generally wobbly. Not that they were terrible singers, just miscast for their roles. Also, the opera was poorly staged, making the opera come across as quite static (for which they seemed to desperately compensate with the silent movie). In an opera where the music itself, owing not to lack of invention but to the stylistic conventions of the day, is repetitive, it is up to the director and the singers to liven up the action.
Oh, I should also mention to anybody familiar with the orchestration for “Abduction” – I don’t know if it was due to poor microphone placement or a poorly executed artistic allusion to warfare, but the cymbal clashes sound like deafening gunshots and become quite distracting, considering how often the cymbals play throughout the opera. You’ve been warned.
If I were you, dear reader, I would not take a chance on the OCP production of “Abduction from the Seraglio”. It is a waste of creative opportunity for those involved in the production, and a waste of time and money for the audience (unless the tickets are free).