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.