Abstraction from the Seraglio

Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail is a problematic opera.  It’s got some great music but the libretto is pretty weak and its depiction of Turks is pretty unflattering.  Maybe it seemed edgy less than a hundred years after the Ottomans besieged Vienna but today it just seems mildly embarrassing.  Fortunately it’s a singspiel with dialogue rather than opera with recitatives so it’s fairly easy to play with the story line.  For his 1998 production Stuttgart at the Staatsoper Stuttgart, Hans Neuenfels goes much further.  He double each of the singers with an actor and pretty much rewrites the dialogue.  He also introduces an element of metatheatre.  This is a performance and everyone knows it.  For example when Pedrillo is asked how he’s going to get hold of a ladder for the escape scene he replies that he’ll use the one they always use in this opera.

1.osminsThere’s lots going on in Neuenfels’ treatment.  There’s lots of interaction between the doubles, who share the dialogue, as well as between different characters.  There’s a fair amount of dismembered bodies and children spitted on pikes.  Blonde gets the dominatrix treatment , though here in an English riding habit rather than leather mini and boots.  (Have all German theatre directors had rather unusual experiences with English women.  It sometimes seems so).  FWIW parts of Blonde’s dialogues are in English.  The reference to being “chicken hearted” in “Frischt auf zum Kampfe” provokes a rather literal chicken-and-egg scene in which Death makes a rather odd appearance.  In the “discovery” scene the Osmins make rather heavy use of a basket of snakes and the whole affair concludes with Selim reading a Mörike poem and saying goodbye to Konstanze.  On the video there’s no applause and no curtain call.  My description makes it sound chaotic but really it isn’t though, as with all such productions, there are bits that probably made more sense to the director than the audience.  It really hangs together rather well and makes for a pretty satisfying theatrical experience.

2.chorusThe performances are pretty good.  Catherine Nagelstad is a very stylish and accomplished Konstanze.  She’s spot on in the big numbers and acts well.  Kate Ladner is a very decent Blonde.  It’s hard to avoid the word “pert” with Blondes so I won’t.  Matthias Klink sings Belmonte and he’s pretty good most of the time though with maybe a tendency to bleat his high notes.  Heinz Göhrig is an engaging and pleasant to listen to Pedrillo and Roland Bracht is suitably pantomime villainish as Osmin. Conductor Lothar Zagrosek judges his tempi well and seems very much in sympathy with the production.  The Stuttgart orchestra is fine and the chorus perform their couple of numbers convincingly.

3.blondesandosminsThe actor doubles are very good too, especially Andreas Grötzinger as Osmin.  he’s a younger, slimmer, much more physically active incarnation of the character and really makes a very effective double act with Bracht.  The other doubles; Emanuela von Frankenberg – Kostanze, Carola Freiwald – Blonde, Alexander Bogner – Belmonte and Alexander von Heidenreich – Pedrillo are all very accomplished actors and work off their singer doubles effectively.  Johannes Terne’s Selim is central to the whole thing.  he lends real gravitas and more than a touch of tristesse, holding the whole thing together as something more than a madcap comedy.  It’s fitting that he gets the last word.

4.kostanzeselimThe video direction by János Darvas is judicious and undistracting.  The picture quality is not quite HD DVD quality and the PCM stereo sound is good but not up to the very best recent recordings.  The only extra is a character gallery.  The booklet has a detailed track listing and a ho-hum essay.  Subtitle options German, French and English.

5.konstanzespedrillosThis disk is worth a look.  The technical quality can’t match the more recent Amsterdam recording but I think there’s more psychological depth in Neuenfels’ concept and it may bear repeated viewings better.

6.snakes

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10 thoughts on “Abstraction from the Seraglio

  1. Thanks for bringing this one back to light. I absolutely love this interpretation. The whole “this is an opera and we know it, and so let’s run with that” thing works for me. I’m pretty sure the double-cast thing would work with most operas, but this one seems ripe for it. I think the double-cast gives us a chance to see different sides of the characters by how they interact with their doubles. Of course, sometimes the singers act opposite the actors versions of their partners (as in the Konsanzes/Belmontes mixing it up in the photo above. I think I am making this performance sound more confusing than it is.

    I found the full-stop ending rather jarring. It’s clear a lot of the performance (most of, I think) was recorded in front of an audience. But there are several times images reappear from earlier in the opera (Belmonte’s butterfly, and Konstanze’s snowstorm) that I am pretty sure the audience didn’t. Earworm has quite a bit to say about this production, including some discussion of the Mörike at the end.

    This performance is one that keeps me from seeing more, other, different operas. What I mean is, I sprung for my own copy of the DVD, and when I am thinking, “Gee I feel like watching an opera DVD,” it’s one of my top two or three go-to discs.

      • I liked your initial comment. The concept sounds intriguing although a bit too clever for its own good at the same time. I should see it for myself. Also riding habits > leather miniskirts.

      • dehggial: I think since you liked the Wiener Kammeroper “Clemenza,” you’ll find this interesting. It’s meta-theater but from a different angle.

        This Entführung is available on YT but without subtitles–and the German (with a bit of English interspersed) dialog flies by pretty fast. Earworm posted a few excerpts–with subs–on YT. Her YT name is musicalpunchlines–ALL of her YT postings are noteworthy (of course).

  2. It is very interesting to hear that you guys like this production; I tend to think that this one of the most wretched things I have seen for a long time. To me the double casting, Mörike reciting and some other things going on indicates that the director thinks the libretto is so weak, that it needs to be propped up with other stuff. I don’t think so: I am thinking for example the Zürich production with Brandauer, Hartelius and Peczala.

    Maybe I should go and see this production again.

    • I agree that the libretto is troublesome. At least Neuenfels didn’t go all Stefan Herheim on us (Salzburg M22), throw out the dialog completely, and start over with a new book.

      I sometimes wonder if directors/producers would be so cavalier with the dialog if it were sung recitative. Although, no one messes (much) with the Magic Flute or Fidelio…

      Meanwhile, I need to check out that Zurich performance.. I mean… Hartelius!!! Sigh.

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