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Posts Tagged ‘Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail’

Michael Thalheimer’s non-staging of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail for the Deutsche Staatsoper has an interesting strategy to prevent the audience from running away during the interval – it has no intervals. The good news is that the transmigration for the Schillertheater has the dubious advantage of allowing the whole audience to see the show (in the old Staatsoper Unter den Linden, the director carefully chose every blind spot of the stage to place a singer on it). As a result, now the audience knows that there is very little difference between seeing and not  seeing what does not happen in this production. Pity, for the cast here gathered could act.

Replacing an ailing Susan Gritton in the last minute, Cornelia Götz, scheduled to sing Blondchen later this year, jumped in for Konstanze, a role she has been singing for a while. I saw Ms. Götz only once, as an accurate but small-scale Queen of the Night at the Met a couple of years ago, something that accounts for the fact that I would not classify her as an “ambitious Blondchen”. Her soprano is creamier and fuller than many a Konstanze out there, but the easy and spontaneous top register resents a more “dramatic” approach and the low notes are only occasionally there. That said, what really matters is the fact that she is a natural Mozartian singer, with a truly lovely voice, almost perfect runs, a good trill and exquisite high mezza voce. She is also attentive to the words, adding some illuminating inflections here and there and reciting her dialogues with spontaneity and engagement. Since last year, Anna Prohaska’s Blondchen has become more natural, less heavily underlined and more seductive too, but she would have welcomed a less rapid tempo for Welche Wonne, welche Lust. Kenneth Tarver finds no difficulties in the role of Belmonte, pouring liquid coloratura throughout his entirely homogeneous voice. His tenore is a bit too leggero for Belmonte, but what may be bothersome after some time  is the monochromatic quality of his singing. Florian Hoffmann’s Spieltenor proved to be more substantial and he is definitely more comfortable with the heroics of Frisch zum Kampfe. As for Reinhard Dorn, it is true that he is a legitimate basso profondo, who could tackle the impossible low notes without much ado. That said, his singing is so poorly supported that he basically speaks everything above his low register. I have to understand that he was in one of those days in which the voice is not really responsive and praise his professionalism in showing up on stage for a role so difficult to replace*. Friedrich Haider knows his Mozart and offered a variegated, lively and clear performance. The orchestra responded with spirit, being a central part of the action in its faithful portrayal of the wide range of emotional atmospheres in this score. The chorus was not immune to the animation and sang with enthusiasm and accuracy.

* It must be said that the gratitude for Cornelia Götz’s last-minute replacement in such a difficult role did not inspire the Staatsoper either to print a small notice for the cast-lists sold in the foyer or even – until now – to credit her on their website.

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Calixto Bieito’s 2004 infamous production of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail for the Komische Oper is sometimes referred to as “the-naked-Osmin-Entführung” and my only surprise, if we have in mind the Catalan director’s reputation, is that the bass was actually the only naked singer on stage (don’t worry – there are plenty of other naked people on stage, only they do not sing). Considering that the show is forbidden for those younger than 18, I wonder who Bieito wanted to shock. I suppose adults (and unfortunately sometimes children) in the XXIth century just have to turn the TV on to see everything Bieito wanted to share with us in his staging of Mozart’s Turkish Singspiel. Ah, my mistake!, the concept is “no Turkey for you!”. In the performance booklet, Bieito explains that the whole East/West thing is secondary to the fact that this is a work about the war between sexes. He adds that in Spain 20 (twenty) women die every year in crimes of passion. Considering that the 2004 Madrid train bombings alone killed 191 and wounded 1,800, I guess that the real naive person here is Bieito himself.  Although Mozart himself found the libretto poorly written, he seemed to have taken a fancy to a story in which the conflicts between Christians and Muslims is solved by a precedent of good behavior, a lesson which we could certainly still use today – and we can say that because he composed a great deal of noble music for his serious character and inserts a particularly touching note in his formulaic Vaudeville in the end of the opera. The fact that Bieito has entirely let this go to make way for his private fancies is the main reason why his staging is ultimately a failure. That said, there are things to cherish there too. For example, the edge.

Although Die Entführung aus dem Serail is often staged as a cute fairy-tale, this is a story of violence, kidnapping, imprisonment and discrimination. In this sense, Bieito’s setting the story in a brothel is far from a misfire. That this brothel has an Almodovarian atmosphere is actually a good idea too – it is a pity that he has not learnt from Almodovar his trademark blended of tragedy and comedy, for this is a Singspiel and semiserio conventions cannot simply be overlooked to make for a contrived scandal-news ending. Although the production is six-years-old, the new cast acts convincingly in a coherent way and, if I have to retain something positive, is that for once the threatening atmosphere does come through in a vivid way. When Konstanze sings Traurigkeit, her words do not sound like cheap sentimentalism, but really like lamenting happiness and freedom hopelessly lost. It is indeed a pity that all that has been used to convey Bieito’s own agenda rather than Mozart’s.

Conductor Simon Hewett has a good grasp of Mozartian style, but his approach is too soft-centered for this staging. Harnoncourt, Minkowski – even the late Georg Solti – could dig up the dark sides of the score in a more effective way. With two notable exceptions, the cast is below standard. Many an important opera house waits to gather a team of truly technically fluent singers to stage this opera – the Komische Oper should do the same. Announcements of indisposition have become current these days and the audience is often puzzled trying to figure if the “indisposed” singer actually had some sort of illness. Unfortunately, that was not the case with Agneta Eichenholz, who evidently had a bad cold which tampered with her in alts in Ach, ich liebte and posed extra difficulty in some key moments. Other than this, she does not really have a true Konstanze voice – I would rather say a perfect Blondchen for a big theatre. But real Konstanzes are a rare breed and, among many sopranos not naturally cut for the role (Diana Damrau included, I am afraid), Eichenholz is probably one of the best I have ever seen. Her high-lying soprano is extremely pleasing in its creaminess and floating quality, her coloratura is fluent, her mezza voce is delicate and natural and she phrases knowingly. In spite of her illness, Martern aller arten was quite accomplished, if we overlook a non projecting low register and some extra breath pauses. Although Jens Larsen is always mentioned for his full-monty exposure, the real interest about his Osmin should be his true basso profondo and declamatory skills, even in difficult patter passages. If he had a little bit more discipline to produce more homogeneous Mozartian phrasing, he could be a reference for this role.

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What is wrong with Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail to inspire some of the worst operatic stagings in the history of opera? Michael Thalheimer’s new production for the Statsoper unter den Linden is one of the most pretentious pieces of stage direction ever shown to an audience. One might wonder why I am surprised considering the Lindenoper’s record with Regietheater. But make no mistake – Thalheimer’s Entführung is no Regietheater, it is rather a non-Regie. The whole plot is reduced to basically nothing. In most épatons-la-bourgeosie productions, an innocent bystander would believe he understood the plot, although what he understood has nothing to do with the actual story. For example, if someone who had never seen this most genial among Singspiele were invited to see Stefan Herheim’s production in Salzburg, he would later tell he saw something like the operatic adaptation of feature movie Beetlejuice. But if you took this same fellow to the Staatsoper this evening, he would ask you what the orchestra and the audience were doing in a preliminary rehearsal.

 To start with, the German taxpayer should claim Olaf Altmann’s fee back – he is billed as set designer, but all he did was to install a suspended cat downstage. And that’s it. Most singing and acting take place outside the stage or very near to the edge of it. As a result, the German taxpayer who could not afford a parterre ticket actually missed most of the show. Basically he paid twice for nothing. Katrin Lea Tag’s creative process as a costume designer seems to be: she took a flight to Tokyo, got to Shibuya Subway station and lured the six first people who appeared in front of her into selling her their clothes. I took a while to understand if Pedrillo was a boy or a girl. As for the choristers, she probably went to the Galeries Lafayette and said “give me some 80 black garments”. The guinea pig of our “Regie-experience” is asking himself to this moment why this minimalist fashion show had Turkish-flavoured music.

 If you bought the performance’s booklet, then you will understand that the director was really fascinated with the “language issue” – that there are Spanish characters dealing with Turkish characters while speaking and singing German. “Food for thought”, he might have thought. And this to this moment irrelevant aspect of the work took pride of place – so basically a) the plot; b) the sets; c) the costumes and d) common sense were replaced by dialogues spoken 75% in German and 5% in Italian (there is one Italian singer in the cast) and 20% in English. One may ask himself – considering that the plot is set in Turkey and that Berlin is one of the largest “Turkish” cities in the world – why nobody decided to add a bit of Turkish in this melting pot. I mean all this if you REALLY believe that there is a language issue in Die Entführung aus dem Serail. In New York, where all these languages are entirely foreign, the Metropolitan Opera House had all dialogues spoken in German.

 The nonsense-fest on stage did not affect the pit – Philippe Jordan offered a wide-eyed, alert reading of the score. His beat was flexibility itself and he always found the right balance between animation, lyricism, theatricality and elegance. The house orchestra responded accordingly, offering transparent sounds and clearly articulated phrasing. The edition here adopted opened the cuts in Martern aller Artern und Wenn der Freude. I wonder, however, how a serious conductor such as Jordan accepted the idea of interrupting Mozart’s arias in order to accommodate the director’s wishes. Mozart has not written such pauses and allowing them is insulting a genius to comply with the wishes of a nobody.

 William Christie’s recording (and Marc Minkowski’s video) show that Konstanze is a hard-day work for Christine Schäfer – and the passing of time does not made the task easier for her. I do not mean that the voice has suffered any decline. It has not – it still has a unique blending of luster, roundness and metal that makes it soft yet penetrating at the same time. However, the impossible filigree written by Mozart to Caterina Cavalieri is a continuous test to her abilities – many a coloratura passage is smudged, some long phrases are butchered for breath pauses and the lower end of the tessitura is often drowned in inaudibility. Because of that, Ach, ich liebte sounded frankly awkward, Traurigkeit a bit tentative and she seemed to connect only from Martern aller Arten on, rounded off rather from panache than from polish. Most disturbing was her unconvincing parlando and off-pitch effects. I know it has worked for her in contemporary repertoire – but really here it just sounds a trick to get away with difficult passages.

 Although Anna Prohaska sometimes underlines her phrasing too heavily, she has a contagious personality and often sings with instrumental accuracy. In this production, both Blondchen and Pedrillo are very, very gloomy, but she seems to have found a way to make it work for her. I cannot say the same of Florian Hoffmann. Without the animation, there is nothing left in Pedrillo and the heroic ascending phrases of Frisch zum Kampfe took him to his limits. Maurizio Muraro is my first Italian Osmin. Me may have a light accent, both in song and in dialogue and yet he produces flowing and meaningful German. As almost every Osmin, he does not really have the impossible low notes required by Mozart, but he has everything else. The voice is powerful, dark, firm and flexible and he sings stylishly. I save the best for last – Pavol Breslik is simply the best Mozart tenor of our days. I have found him more spontaneous in Italian, but still he is one of the best Belmontes I have seen both live or in recordings. Although he is a light lyric tenor, the sound is what the French call corsé – firm and incisive, yet ductile enough for mezza voce and flexible enough for breathtakingly accurate fioriture. When I mean breathtaking, I mean also that he has very long breath and produces some very fast and lengthy melisme a tempo without any hint of blurring. To make things better, the tone is extremely pleasant, something like a lighter Gösta Winbergh.

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I have updated the discography of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail in re: opera and added a review of the Gelmetti/Hampe DVD with Ruth Ann Swenson and Hans-Peter Blochwitz.

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