Canadian Opera Company 2017-18 Review – The Abduction From the Seraglio: Revisions to Libretto Don’t Feel All That Necessary

By John S. Twinam

Purists fear not. Rest easy, ye who learned with alarm that writer/director Wajdi Mouawad has taken extreme liberties with the libretto of Mozart’s early masterpiece, “The Abduction from the Seraglio,” not just tinkering with dialogue but inserting whole new scenes to both accentuate European racism and sexism and soften Ottoman despotism: not a note of Mozart’s divine magic has been altered in the Canadian Opera Company’s production (although you may not appreciate the dialogue inserted over the brilliant overture).

Unlike Buffalo Opera Unlimited’s recent “Magic Flute,” which completely excised secondary villain Monostatos as an unacceptable vestige of 18th century racism, Mouawad has managed to impose his 21st century sensibilities on the piece without sacrificing a moment of the music that thrills the vast majority of the opera-going public; in fact, he eschews even cuts sometimes made in the interests of time, resulting in a nearly three and a half hour evening. Whether Mouawad’s changes improve the drama, directed here by Valerie Nègre, is open to debate.

The quality of the singing, particularly Jane Archibald’s Kostanze, and of conductor Johannes Debus’ sensitive rendering of the dualities of the magnificent score, is not. Audience members who come to be thrilled by the pyrotechnics of “Martern aller arten” or to see if the comic bass can pull off the low D’s in the third act (the lowest notes in the repertoire) will be pleased by the singing at Toronto’s Four Season Centre. Just be aware this is not your father’s “Seraglio.” If beautiful music, beautifully sung, is ALL you had in mind for your night at the theater, the COC is determined to challenge your complacency.

Challenging YOU

Coming on the heels of the announcement that the Olympic Committee has had to shutter a communal prayer room because of anti-Muslim protests, Mouawad’s voice might be worth considering. In the end, I may have disagreed with some of his decisions, even his premise about the anti-Islamic nature of the opera, but I’m glad we live in a world large enough to include his work.

Mouawad’s statement starts before the overture even begins: a group of revelers in 18thc Europe costume are celebrating the rescue of Konstanze, her maid Blonde (Claire de Sévigné), and her boyfriend Pedrillo (Owen McCausland) from the harem of Pasha Selim (actor Ralph Weinstock, in a non-singing role), framing the libretto as a flashback. But we soon realize that although the three may have returned, they may not have been “rescued,” that they have enormous affection for their “captors” and more than a little disdain for their fellow Europeans. That disdain is quickly justified when the overture turns into a kind of demented Anvil Chorus, with the party-goers taking turns bashing a “Whack a Turk” in time with the music. My initial reaction was to be annoyed by the distraction to the immortal overture, which immediately contrasts a soft, chamber-like, string-rich Enlightment salon-ish Western orchestration with the loud, jarring cymbals, triangles and drums of the Turkish military janissary (or at least a westernized version of it). While it’s possible to interpret the contrasting orchestration as one facet of the “celebration of one culture/condemnation of another,” which is what so troubles Mouawad about this work, I’ve always focused on how the instruments meld in the climax of the overture into a magnificent whole greater than the sum of its parts. I suppose it’s that reading of the overture that allows me to view the work not as celebrating one region, religion, or culture at the expense of another, but as celebrating freedom over despotism, a message that needs no updating for the 21st century. But there’s a reason protests aren’t held in closets: if Mouawad’s purpose was to announce to the audience at the outset that he was here to challenge them, it succeeded.

Two Appealing Leads At Opposite Ends

Swiss tenor Mauro Peter, who recently sang the role at La Scala, makes his North American debut as Belmonte. Belmonte is the prototypical Mozart tenor that requires a pureness of tone to match the purity of his motivation (smudged just a bit here); it’s no surprise that Covent Garden recognized Peter’s talent when looking for a Tamino for its fall “Magic Flute.” His opening aria, “Hier sol lich dich denn sehen,” delivered with the appropriate earnestness and passion, provides sharp contrast with the insults and threats of deadly, gruesome violence Osmin (Goran Juric) hurls first at unwelcome stranger Belmonte, then at romantic rival Pedrillo.

Osmin may be “irredeemably appalling”, especially if one disregards his first thoughts, which are of comforting and treasuring a sweetheart, as well as a guard’s natural suspicion of outsiders and the frequently ferocious response to a romantic rival, regardless of gender, nationality or faith. I disagree with the director when he suggests that Osmin’s appalling characteristics are presented as a function of his religion; they seem to me to be universal. Additional dialogue may make his character more three-dimensional than the stock “bad-guy” character from the original source material, but I believe Mozart and librettish Christoph Friedrich Bretzner have already done that. Juric clearly had not only the range to pull off the great comic effects required by a zig-zagging, 100 mph vocal line, but also the sensitivity, particularly in scenes with de Sévigné, to show Osmin as more than just a clown even without Mouawad’s additional dialogue.

The Big Diva Moment

The additional dialogue wreaks havoc on the three-act structure, but with some interesting effects. For example, with Konstanze, on stage for most of Act I (in which she normally wouldn’t appear until near the end) as part of the flashback structure, Belmonte’s apostrophic declarations were no longer abstract, but to the face of his beloved. Intermission came not between acts, but after “Martern aller Arten” which understandably received the largest ovation of the night. From the moment Archibald squared up and put her right foot forward and launched into one of Mozart’s most challenging arias, the audience knew it was not her first time at the rodeo. Not to say that she “stood and delivered:” she spent substantial portions of the night on the floor, even curled up in a fetal position. I just mean she sang with great assuredness and authority, with a remarkable evenness not just in this aria but throughout the night, with only an occasional harshness at the very top. I wonder if that might have been due to the dialogue required of her from the very beginning; not only did she have to manage transitions between speaking and singing voices, she had a considerably longer evening than your standard Konstanze; that she maintained stores of breath at the end of the scena seemed superhuman. The most unusual part of “Martern” was that she sang of her willingness to endure all tortures not to her captor, who only had a brief walk-through (I suppose in an effort to distance him from the enumerated horrors): her main audience was a group of young girls being tutored by young women, which I personally found visually distracting. When it’s the diva’s big moment, I don’t like anyone else fussing around. The showstopper not only made for a natural break in the action, but the intermission provided a break in the drama to allow the insertion of a Muslim prayer scene in what was now the beginning of Act two.

The prayer mats were the only overt visual reference to Islamic culture, other than the floor length black robes worn by Selim and Osmin, and costume designer Emmanuelle Thomas’ scarlet red burkas for the harem. Set designer Emmanuel Clolus seemed determined to strip away easy references to the Ottoman Empire: no oriental carpets, no mosaic tiles, no arches or other architectural references here. The enormous stone walls representing the outside of the palace were stark. When they finally opened to reveal half a stone globe, I tried to see dome but mostly saw Death Star, until the orb was rotated by stagehands to reveal the seraglio.

Two Other Stars

If Archibald and Peter were steady throughout the evening, and Juric stole every scene he was in, McCausland and de Sévigné shone in the second act. If I had any quibble with Alexander’s top, it was because de Sévigné’s was so crystalline. That’s where the part sits, so the few extravagantly low notes that were out of her range aren’t worth dwelling on. When not singing, de Sévigné was able to demonstrate discomfort with the scene in which Pedrillo drugs Muslim Osmin with wine to facilitate the escape (another example of the opportunities the text provides to make it clear this is not a “West good/East bad” piece). Scenes in which she was required to expound on Osmin’s virtues were less successful.

McCausland really came alive in the afore-mentioned inebriation scene, releasing a rich, gleaming tenor.

“The Abduction from the Seraglio” continues at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto until February 24th.


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