Die Entführung aus dem Serail

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aka: The Abduction from the Seraglio

Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Libretto: Christoph Friedrich Bretzner

adapted by Gottlieb Stephanie the Younger

First Produced: Burgtheater, Vienna, 1782

Present Company: Gran Theatre del Liceu, Barcelona

Director: Christopher Loy

Sets & Costumes: Herbert Murauer

Lighting: Olaf Winter

Film Director: Pietro D’Agostino

Orchestra & Chorus of the Gran Theatre del Liceu

Conductor: Ivor Bolton



Konstanze: Diana Damrau

Belmonte: Christopher Strehl

Osmin: Franz-Josef Selig

Blonde: Olga Peretyatko

Pedrillo: Norbert Ernst

Selim: Christopher Quest



Resolution: 1080i

Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1

Disc size: BD-50

Opera: 39.90 GB

Bit Rate: Moderate (20~28 Mbps)

German DTS-HD MA 5.1

German LPCM 2.0 stereo

Subtitles: English, German, French, Spanish, Catalan, Chinese & Korean

Region: All

Opera runtime: 188 minutes

C Major Entertainment 2011



Conception & Staging: A-

Costumes: B+

Casting: A-

Singing: B+

Orchestra: A

Music Direction: A

Video Direction: A

Image: B+

Audio: A-

Extras Features: 0

Recommendation: A-

Perhaps you recall the scene in the 1987 film Amadeus where Mozart is rehearsing his first mature opera, “The Abduction from the Seraglio”.  The stage is dense with color, costume and pomp.  It’s an opportunity for we the audience to enjoy the spectacle of an all-out staging of an opera which, despite its age, and Mozart’s youth (he was 26) remains a staple of the operatic repertoire.  Well, enjoy that vision as you can, for it is nowhere in evidence in Christopher Loy’s intriguing new staging.  More on this presently.

Mozart crammed in a great many compositions in his brief 36 years, and wrote successfully and in depth in every genre.  Not even Beethoven or J.S. Bach can make that claim.  Wikipedia lists 22 operas and, here again, Mozart composed in all the popular forms: Opera buffa, opera seria, Dramma giocoso, among others. Die Entführung aus dem Serail is what is called a Singspiel – more a sung play than an opera if you keep all the spoken dialogue intact, as it is here - and is distinguished by spoken dialogue without music in place of recitatives with minimal (most often) harpsichord accompaniment, as would occur in Le Nozze di Figaro for example. There is even one important character, the Pasha from whose seraglio the heroine is abducted, who speaks but doesn’t sing at all.

Recitatives function in much the way the verse does in American popular song: in the case of the recitative it is to introduce the aria; in the case of the popular song, the verse introduces the chorus. Not so in a Singspiel where the dialogue merely forwards the narrative and the arias reflect on them or elaborate the mood. The Singspiel therefore requires not only acting and singing talent, but speaking abilities as well.  I can’t recall the title just now, but I came across one LP recording that used different voices for the speaking and singing parts.  Then, as now, the idea struck me as downright silly.

Despite the airy-fairy title and my earlier reference to the scenes in Amadeus, Die Entführung aus dem Serail is played here as melodrama rather than comedy. (The theater audience at the Gran Theatre del Liceu rarely giggles.)  Christopher Loy’s staging and reading of the libretto offers a different and fascinating take on the relationship between captor and prisoner - not one Mozart and his librettist had in mind, no doubt, but all the same justified by the text. The outline of the story remains the same.  Belmonte arrives at the palace of the Turkish Pasha with intentions to rescue his beloved Konstanze from the harem of the Pasha Selim. He meets up with Osmin, the Pasha’s head man, who pretty much dismises him.  Konstanze, along with her English servant, Blonde, and Blonde’s sweetheart, Padrillo, were captured months ago by pirates and sold to the Pasha.  During their house arrest, Konstanze has become the Pasha’s favorite, even though she has, until now, resisted his advances.  Selim could simply command her to yield, but – perhaps out of chivalry – he has been willing to wait for her come to him.  Likewise, Blonde has become the apple of Osmin’s eye.  Osmin has followed his boss’s lead and waits for Blonde, though he, being of a decidedly lower caste, is less able to contain his passions.  The patience of both Selim and Osmin are at the breaking point.  Padrillo mopes about the palace with only the slightest communication with the women, but he does manage to pawn Belmonte off to the Pasha as a suitable architect for the palace.  Osmin is suspicious, though he can’t say why.  Padrillo and Belmonte meet and plan to free the women.

What is remarkable about Loy’s staging is not the modern, relatively threadbare set, but how, without altering the text, clearly indicates that both women are the victims of Stockholm syndrome to the point that not only have their captors mellowed but the women themselves have found themselves attracted to the men, very likely the result of seeing the effect of the power over them.  It’s fascinating to watch the opera through this lens, but what is all the more remarkable is how this affects the final act, after the aborted escape, and all the characters occupy the same moment on the stage, but the changing power relationships float about the scene like a cloud.  At one point, near the end of Act 2, the men question their women as to their faithfulness.  In the generic production when the women are indignant the men see this as evidence of the fidelity and rejoice; but in Loy’s hands the fact they have asked the question implies how little regard they are held in and sets the stage for the third act where loyalties seem to toter. In the final act, Loy has Selim blindfold the four escapees to prepare for their being tortured, but the result is that true feelings by all parties, however conflicted, emerge.  Dramatically, it is the best thing about the production.

The singing is quite good overall, except that I thought at first I would have liked a sweeter Konstanze. Diana Damrau has a slight, but noticeable, squawk, which reads worse than it is, and in any case disappears almost entirely by her magnificent second act lament - the highlight of the production, as it turns out.  Early on I thought she would be improperly matched with her Belmonte, Christopher Strehl, who looks like a cross between William Hurt and Gary Oldman and whose singing has both tenderness and drive.  I was concerned that Ms Damrau would overwhelm him, but by the end of the second act when they are thrown together, not only are they compatible vocally, but the shrillness I heard in the first act as she opposes the Pasha began to make sense, since she has been a prisoner for so very long and needed to gather all her resolve to resist her jailer.

In Die Entführung aus dem Serail we can see Mozart in his early stages of trying to figure out how to realize unique vocal characters – a technique that would reach it’s zenith with Figaro  and Don Giovanni.  He is not always successful.  Song and character is inconsistent, regardless of whether you see this as comedy or drama. And it is curious that the two women held prisoner are both sopranos and the two men planning their escape are both tenors.  The difference between the voices is subtle: Of the women, Diana Damrau’s Konstanze is the more dramatic voice, with the greatest emotional range and requiring the softest singing.  Olga Peretyatko’s Blonde is lighter and narrower until her surprising, stratospheric E-flat in the second act.  Christopher Strehl’s Belmonte and Norbert Ernst’s Padrillo have a similar relationship, vocally, to Konstanze and Blonde.

Franz-Josef Selig holds his own against the best buffa basses: a warm, voluptuous sound here never used for comic effect.  It’s more than a little unexpected, and humanizes his character and makes him less odious to us as well as to Blonde.  We cannot but notice that one of the principal characters speaks, but does not sing.  Is this because at this stage of his development Mozart could not sort out how to write for Selim in a way that commands attention and sympathy, or because Selim ought not have music for dramatic reasons?

All of which brings me to the one feature of this or any Singspiel that is as likely to discomfit modern audiences as intra-titles for silent movies: those long stretches of spoken dialogue that to many comes as interruption rather than a useful and integrated mechanism to forward the plot.  (There was a time way back when I felt the same way about recitative that is merely dialogue accompanied by jabs on the harpsichord.  As to that, I much prefer Carmen with spoken dialogue rather than recitative.)  That said, Loy’s staging, coupled with several stretched where there is neither spoken dialogue or singing – just silence – made the dialogue, naturalistically spoken instead of the usual stand-and-deliver method, not merely acceptable, but sensible and inevitable.
Ivor Bolton opts for somewhat slower tempi than most conductors, turning what is generally a comic opera into a more serious one.  I should clarify that slower in this case doesn’t mean lazy or less focused.  Quite the contrary.  He gets playing from the Orchestra of the Gran Theatre del Liceu that equals the best of any recording I’ve heard.

The video presentation asks us at home to be part of the audience more than usual.  At the end of the first and second acts the camera lingers to take in some of the audience leave their seats for intermission. This is in keeping with the fact that Belmonte’s initial entrance is staged between the pit and the first row of seats and that the chorus’ big number in the first act is sung from the audience stalls at the sides of the theatre.  I felt Pietro D’Agostino’s video direction to be sensitive to the drama and varied enough to keep things interesting.  There is no rapid cutting, and many shots linger long enough and wide enough for us to get the feel of things before cutting in close – sometimes very close.  He risks staying on the reaction of a character on a distant part of the stage while another is singing.  By and large I found these shots effective rather than disruptive.  High marks.

Christopher Loy’s staging makes use of two scrims, one at the front of the stage and one at the back, each opening to action in a particular room.  I generally don’t much care for lengthy action behind a scrim, and as the last act doesn’t lower the veil for thirteen minutes, I began to feel restless.  I see where Loy is going with this but I find it to be a cheat - the one weakness in an otherwise inventive staging.
The image is superb. . . except when it’s not.  There is some brief but noticeable judder a few times in the first act, and one instance of what comes across as dropped frames (I suspect it’s just an advance case of judder).  But once things settle down – and the effect of all this is not as disruptive as it reads – the picture quality is very good indeed, with no transfer artifacts or noise, and excellent contrast control.

Clear and dynamic the surround mix may be, yet it is remarkably underused in that rare staging instance where the chorus is actually placed above and right and left of the audience.  You should consider the 2.0 here since it is also somewhat more dynamic and not especially lacking in spaciousness.  The 5.1 mix offers a pleasing sound from the stage, especially for Selig.  Given that a not inconsiderable portion of the opera is spoken, rather than sung, we should want a good balance between the two as characters shift from one mode to the other - and, indeed, that’s what we get.  Points here.

Once we get past our notions of how this opera should look, there is a great deal to savor about this production.  It makes its point early on and by the final act I was giving Loy high marks – all the more so for elevating my opinion of the opera.  OK, it’s not Don Giovanni but Die Entführung aus dem Serail is, or can be surprisingly complex, and all the arias and ensembles save one perhaps are affecting.  The singing and characterizations are all spot on, though I felt Damrau presses too hard in the first act.  Her soft singing, on the other hand, is beyond reproach. And by the second act she completely won me over. Despite the absence of Bonus Features and the video snags of the first act, C Major’s Blu-ray should reward with plays and replays.


Leonard Norwitz
© LensViews
July 13, 2012

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