By Arthur Kaptainis
TORONTO – Formerly hailed as Mozart’s first comic masterpiece and widely appreciated as a great night out, The Abduction from the Seraglio has fallen on hard times. And with cause.
This Singspiel of 1782 is a flagrant example of cultural appropriation, set in Turkey but written by Europeans. The plot implies inequality of the sexes, unless you look closely at the circumstances, which no one these days really has time to do.
At any rate, the Canadian Opera Company, a house that strives to be up-to-the-minute in all things, has furnished its long-suffering subscribers with a properly revised and sanitized version, which originated in Lyon in 2016. It is sure to soothe the political sensibilities of all, including those who stay awake.
The opening on Feb. 7 in the Four Seasons Centre was greeted with a few boos, a few cheers, and a good deal of indifferent thanks-for-nothing applause.
If you like the overture, with its zesty rhythm and audacious dashes of percussion, you are out of luck. This show opens with five slogging minutes of German dialogue during which a party of Western imperialists in period clothing congratulate themselves on the glories of the Enlightenment.
Hmm. Might be a touch of irony there.
They proceed to play tête de turc, a variant of a carnival strongman game in which the hammer falls on a representation of a Turk in a turban. The overture is then used as something like video-game music.
Konstanze is suitably appalled by this amusement, knowing from her years of incarceration that the Turks are grievously misunderstood. Wonderful people, really. And so the flashback begins.
It would be unjust to lend too much stress to this silly introduction, which is quickly forgotten. But the struggle persists to distinguish the original dialogue and authentic elements of the plot from the counterfeit coinage introduced by the Lebanese-Canadian director Wajdi Mouawad.
Some interventions are obvious. Mozart did not write a muezzin’s call to prayer. Nor does the libretto offer any evidence that the servant girl Blonde has conceived a child by the harem-keeper Osmin, with whom her relations are actually rather testy.
There is a stalwart avowal of class equality and feminist solidarity by Konstanze and Blonde, who rightly see that their lot under the Ottomans is better than it was in the West: “We once were mistress and servant; here we are two women, side by side.” Schoolgirls happily do their homework behind Konstanze in Act 2. No female illiteracy in this Pasha’s court!
The list of didactic details could go on, but more burdensome to the tone of this long evening was the sheer dreariness of the visuals. Two movable grey monoliths defined the set by Emmanuel Clolus, along with half a sphere on the rear wall, which in Act 3 rotated to reveal the seraglio. Apparently, Mouawad could not think of a way to suppress the incident referred to in the title of the opera.
Of the beauty of Ottoman design there is no trace, notwithstanding the Pasha’s professed interest in architecture. Indeed, the ruler himself wears a dull robe, quite out of keeping with his status, as does Osmin. The Janissaries and servants seem only half-dressed, as if Mouawad’s object (seconded by revival director Valérie Nègre) was to rescue them from any cultural association at all — while rescuing us from exposure to any outmoded notion of “exoticism.”
At this point, a critic normally reports that the singing saved the evening, but vocal satisfactions were only partial. Tenor Owen McCausland was bright and engaging as Pedrillo, and soprano Claire de Sévigné applied wonderful sparkle and spot-on high notes to the role of Blonde. As Konstanze, another Canadian, soprano Jane Archibald, was more convincing in the pathos of the “Traurigkeit” aria than in the athletics of “Martern aller Arten,” while the Swiss tenor Mauro Peter was a low-wattage Belmonte. Fluid as Osmin, Croatian bass Goran Jurić was nevertheless reduced to marking his low notes. Raphael Weinstock commanded no great presence in the spoken role of Pasha Selim.
Mozart’s music offered islands of lucidity, and Johannes Debus oversaw the COC Orchestra and Chorus with his customary assurance. But a Singspiel, with its musical stops and starts, cannot carry a load of stage nonsense as effectively as a through-composed opera. Especially when the dialogue is German and thickened with a political agenda.
The sad thing is that the humanity and egalitarianism that Mouawad (who has made his name in the theater world) was so determined to impose on The Abduction from the Seraglio is already there. What a fine thing it would be if the COC more often found a director whose “take” was based on some degree of understanding of – or even admiration for – the work under consideration.
The Abduction from the Seraglio continues at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto through Feb. 24. For information, go here.
Arthur Kaptainis writes about music for the Montreal Gazette and Musical Toronto.