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Seraglio Imbroglio: Allah the Merciful and Mozart

Ed Rampell: Director James Robinson has reset Mozart’s 18th century Singspiel - with lyrics, spoken dialogue and story written by Christoph Friedrich Bretzner, adapted and enlarged by Johann Gottlieb Stephanie - in the Roaring Twenties.
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THE ABDUCTION FROM THE SERAGLIOReview

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio, which premiered in Vienna in 1782, is apparently set in what had been the Ottoman Empire, where a pasha (a person of high rank, such as a governor) presides over his seraglio, which could refer to a Turkish palace or, as seems to be the case in Mozart’s opera, more precisely the harem within that citadel. LA Opera’s madcap version takes great liberty with this libretto about libertines.

Director James Robinson has reset Mozart’s 18th century Singspiel - with lyrics, spoken dialogue and story written by Christoph Friedrich Bretzner, adapted and enlarged by Johann Gottlieb Stephanie - in the Roaring Twenties. And the action has been moved from the pasha’s palatial harem in what’s now called Turkey to the Orient Express. In doing so the opera’s current incarnation invokes a whiff of the romance and mystery Agatha Christie and Graham Greene bestowed upon the long distance, posh passenger train while retaining Mozart’s exoticism.

(Good thing this production doesn’t involve a trans-Atlantic passage: Trump’s executive order may not allow Pasha Selim (Massachusetts-born actor Hamish Linklater), Osmin (Atlanta-born bass Morris Robinson) and most of their burka-clad harem into America. A case in point: Iranian director Asghar Fahadi, whose movie The Salesman is Oscar-nominated for Best Foreign Film, won’t be attending the Feb. 24 Academy Awards ceremony in Hollywood.)

The curtain - adorned by a charming period map, with French names for the various destinations along the fabled train’s route - lifts at a station in Istanbul, as the much-vaunted Orient Express makes its way towards Paris. The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion audience greeted Allen Moyer’s intricately designed set with applause, as it evokes the luxurious interiors of two or three train cars, wherein all of Seraglio’s action takes place. The train actually moves a bit across the stage (like that vintage 1921 Chrysler in LA Opera’s 2014 version of Verdi’s La Traviata, which was likewise updated and reset in the Jazz Age). The coaches also seem to steam across Europe with the help of rear projections of scenery and a landmark or two.

On the surface, Seraglio’s story is simple: Offstage and before Mozart’s comic opera actually begins, Turkish pirates raided a yacht in the Mediterranean, abducting the Spanish noblewoman Konstanze (English soprano Sally Matthews making her LA Opera debut), her English maidservant Blonde (South Korean soprano So Young Park) and Pedrillo (Missouri tenor Brenton Ryan), personal valet of Belmonte (Madrid-born, Puerto Rico-raised tenor Joel Prieto), a Spanish nobleman engaged to Konstanze. Attracted to Belmonte’s fiancée, the polygamous Pasha Selim has bought the three Europeans from the Turkish buccaneers, intending to make the unwilling Konstanze part of his harem.

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For some reason that’s never quite explained in LA Op’s rendering, Selim (who speaks but sings little if at all) takes his entourage onto his private car aboard the Orient Express, where Belmonte, yearning and burning to be reunited with his true love, has tracked Konstanze down. There, he enlists the faithful if fearful Pedrillo in his scheme to abduct the kidnapped Konstanze and Blonde (whom Pedrillo loves) and free them.

However, there’s one tiny hitch in their master plan: The gargantuan, suspicious Osmin, overseer of the Pasha’s harem. Clad in a fez, harem pants and genie shoes, Morris Robinson portrays the Turk with the panache of silent screen slapstick stars. He resembles Fatty Arbuckle crossed by the mustachioed Ben Turpin, plus Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, the great comic actor of Hollywood’s Golden Age, who co-starred in talkies such as The Green Pastures and Cabin in the Sky, but may be best remembered for playing Jack Benny’s chauffeur on the big and little screen. In terms of his acting per se, the talented Robinson reminded me most of Jack Oakie, who so hilariously spoofed Mussolini in Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 masterpiece The Great Dictator. (Chaplin’s sons Michael and Eugene both told me that Oakie’s Napaloni, Dictator of Bacteria, calls Trump to mind.)

Osmin breaches Islamic codes by hypocritically drinking alcohol and clumsily attempting to seduce Blonde, but staunchly seeks to foil any escape attempts by the Pasha’s pretty prisoners. As the harem’s watchdog, Robinson abducts every scene he’s in like a theatrical kleptomaniac. The actor, like his character, only meets his match onstage in the form of Blonde, as Park’s loyal servant thwarts Osmin’s bumbling bawdiness. The Korean soprano is a sheer delight as she outwits and outsmarts Osmin, and delivers delightful arias, including Act II’s “What delight, what freedom!”

Matthews likewise has a wonderful scene, singing Konstanze’s witty aria “Tortures Unabating”, wherein Selim tries “torturing” her into sexual submission by offering the Spaniard a series of luxuries. Not to be outdone by his performers, the best piece of music is Mozart’s overture. In terms of pure music, Seraglio opens with ebullient, frothy flourishes of transcendent blissful beauty that can transport the listener to a realm of absolute joyousness. It’s almost as if the composer captured in amber and gave form to joie de vivre - the joy of life. Sitting close up I was able to observe James Conlon in the orchestra pit, twirling, swirling and whirling his baton as if it was a musical magic wand, or swinging a swizzle stick, whipping up an ecstatic elixir, as the maestro conducted this three act opera with two intermissions.

Racial, Religious&Sexual Politics

In Seraglio Mozart expresses some of the themes that recur in his operas, such as his obsessions with adultery, fidelity and unfaithfulness (especially by the female of the species), as in Cosi Fan Tutte (So Do They All). There is also the anxiety caused by the aristocratic pulling of rank and insisting upon sexual privilege, which is the centerpiece of The Marriage of Figaro.

A man of the Enlightenment, the composer expressed ideas and ideals of the Age of Reason in his operas. Indeed, as a 12-year-old Wolfgang’s first stab at the operatic art form was an adaptation of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Village Prophet. Rousseau may have rather famously written that: “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.” But Mozart rather daringly extends this concept into the domain of gender equality, as the female captives Konstanze and Blonde resist being coerced into concubinage and sexual slavery. They insist on their rights to control their own bodies - and affections. True love, not coercion, will win their hearts and sexual favors. Konstanze even berates Belmonte for doubting her loyalty. (One wishes that Mozart had also composed arias for those burka-clad women in Seraglio’s background, too…)

Mozart also depicts class struggle, in particular, as the servants Blonde and Pedrillo clash with their social “betters.” This, of course, was a central part of the character of the barber-turned-servant Figaro (albeit somewhat undercut once his actual origins are revealed).

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LA Opera often has nontraditional casting, and it is amusing to see an Asian woman cast as an Englishwoman named “Blonde.” To further ethnically complicate matters, the opera is sung in German (although the spoken dialogue in this production of Mozart’s Singspiel - a genre of opera where speaking and singing alternate - is recited in English, while English supertitles are projected for the lyrics). The winsome Park does not wear a blonde wig, but her voice and acting ability are strong arguments overriding purists who may insist upon racial pedigrees for parts.

On a matter of even greater sensitivity, Pasha Selim and Osmin are both Muslims. With his insistence on severe punishment, Osmin may be a prototype of the so-called “Islamic extremist,” although he is not really a “jihadist” per se, because he is not calling for torturing and executing the four Westerners on religious grounds or quoting from the Koran when he does so. However, Robinson has such a beguiling comic presence that his mirthful manner greatly undermines his exhortations to brutality. In Act III, Robinson huffed and puffed so much he almost literally blew his wispy Turpin-esque mustache off. It’s all largely played for laughs, although Osmin does touch upon the era’s stereotype of the non-Christian barbarian, while his and Selim’s lusting after white women (as Blonde, also called Blonda elsewhere, was originally conceived) plays into other long standing sexual tropes.

If Osmin could be seen as an archetype or caricature of the Isis zealot, Pasha Selim represents the so-called “moderate Muslim,” who believes in Allah the Merciful. Which vision of Islam shall prevail in this operatic romp - the brutal beheader or the munificent mercy-giver? Well, here’s a plot spoiler for you: Seraglio was composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, so even if they’ve never seen this work, opera lovers already know the answer to that one. And theatergoers will love this life-affirming, buoyant, breezy production that will abduct their hearts. All aboard LA Opera’s Orient Express: The best electric toy train set grownup children have ever played with!

Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio will be performed Feb. 4, 8 and 16 at 7:30 p.m. and on Sundays Feb. 12 and 19 at 2:00 p.m., at L.A. Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90012. See: http://www.laopera.org/season/16-17-season/abduction-from-the-seraglio/.

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell