Thursday, 13 February 2014

Mozart - Die Entführung aus dem Serail

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Die Entführung aus dem Serail

L'Opéra Royal de Wallonie, Liège - 2013

Christophe Rousset, Alfredo Arias, Maria Grazia Schiavo, Wesley Rogers, Franz Hawlata, Elizabeth Bailey, Jeff Martin, Markus Merz

France TV Culturebox Internet Streaming, 31 October 2013

Establishing the correct tone can be a difficult thing to manage with any Mozart opera.  Even with works that appear on the surface to be outright comedies, there's always a darker side to the situations and the nature of the characters.  Conversely, even those with a darker and more controversial content (particularly in the treatment of women) are often redeemed by the most sensitive and beautiful music that suggests that the intentions of the composer are not so simple to pin down.  Like Così Fan Tutte, the work that it most closely associated with (although one can also see clear parallels and character types in Die Zauberflöte), there's undoubtedly a darker side to the comic situations in Die Entführung aus dem Serail.  Given the right treatment, there's definitely a case to be made for the worthiness of this work (or indeed even for some of Mozart's earliest operas), but the Liège production here isn't quite up to the mark. 

On the surface, Die Entführung aus dem Serail might indeed appear to be one of those familiar operatic situations of a gentle white European lady being at the held in captivity by ruthless heathen middle-eastern rulers (Rameau's Les Indes Galantes, Galuppi's L'inimico delle donne, and later Rossini's L'Italiana in Algeri).  While the treatment of the subject in his earliest mature opera from the 25 year-old composer is conventional in most respects, Mozart does seem to delve more deeply into the subject.  More than just being a comedy, a rescue opera and foreign exploits in exotic lands, the core of the work rests on a rather more sensitive depiction of the unfortunate lot of women in relationships with men.  It's by no coincidence that the lead person of the opera, Konstanze shares the name of Mozart's wife.

There is indeed a lot of humour to be had at the expense of Turkish men, their harems, their heathen customs and hatred of European men in Die Entführung aus dem Serail, but essentially the real underlying question here is to do with women's servitude and of being bound to the will of men.  Most evidently, there's the lack of freedom in her being held captive by Bassa Selim, but even the nature of unwanted attentions and hopeless devotion is an additional pressure that weighs heavily on Konstanze.  Her forced separation from the man she loves, is also a burden, but so too are his suspicions of infidelity when she is reunited with Belmonte.  There seems to end to the pressures of being a woman - "Sadness is my destiny from this day onward, as Kostanze puts it in her aria "Traurigkeit ward mir zum Lose".

That aspect of the opera is treated very seriously in the Opéra Royal de Wallonie production at Liège - perhaps a little too seriously and to the detriment of the wider dynamic of the work.  There can be tendency to overemphasise the serious side in Mozart and downplay the more difficult comedy that can be politically questionable in this day and age.  The tone is very much set by conductor Christophe Rousset in this respect.  Better known for his harpsichord playing and the life that he has breathed into Baroque opera with Les Talens Lyriques, the step up to early Mozart is a rare foray towards the more Classical repertoire for Rousset.  It's wonderful to hear Die Entführung aus dem Serail played authentically on period instruments, and Rousset conducts with characteristic rhythmic precision, but it's a little too rigid and dry for this work.

The direction too plays it relatively straight and consequently isn't able to quite lift the work out of its fairly conventional structure and arrangements, or even spark much life into it.  The set is somewhere between traditional representational and generic stylised modern, which isn't necessarily a bad thing for a work that itself sits between two opera traditions.  The main set is of a generic palace (or harem) with three pools that are mostly just decorative and have to be walked around by the cast.  The backdrop is a huge frame cloudscape of white clouds in a blue sky.  A gauze screen drop is used to allow scenes outside the seraglio to take place in the foreground, with entrances/exits to left and right.  Gold and blue dominate, which is a nice scheme, particularly when the set-off the white and off-white costumes of Belmonte and Konstanze.  It looks fine and requires a minimum of scene changing, but doesn't particularly enhance the dramatic action or the spoken dialogue.

As a performance of Die Entführung aus dem Serail though, this is typical of the standard we expect from the Opéra Royal de Wallonie - a good, functional, well-suited stage design, good singing and a highly entertaining production overall, often of lesser performed works, and Die Entführung aus dem Serail is not the first choice Mozart.  A strong Konstanze is of key importance and it's a challenging role that was very capably filled by Maria Grazia Schiavo.  Wesley Rogers has that lyrical-noble Tamino quality to his voice and was mostly fine, although he struggled in sections of his "Ich baue ganz auf deine Stärke" aria, particularly in the coloratura.  Jeff Martin's Pedrillo was excellent, and Elizabeth Bailey sparkled as Blondechen.  Combined they created a lovely quartet for "Wenn unsrer Ehre wegen".  Franz Hawlata was a very capable Osmin, while Markus Merz played Selim with a particular explosive intensity.