Wajdi Mouawad’s production of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail, originally seen in Lyon, opened last night at the COC with Valérie Négre as revival director. The piece has been somewhat restructured and the spoken dialogue changed to explode the idea that the piece is “about” some kind of crude juxtaposition of the “West”; Enlightened, civilized etc, and the “East”; obscurantist, cruel, barbarian etc. To this end Mouawad has inserted a prologue before the overture where Belmonte’s father is holding a party to celebrate the return of his son and the others where he makes the above comparison in extremely crude terms and then invites his guests to play la tête du Turc, a game that involves hitting a Turk’s head with a sledgehammer. The guests wade in with drunken abandon, except for Konstanze and Blonde who are clearly revolted by the idea. This leads to a conversation around who changed and how while they were in captivity and so to telling the whole story in flashback.
In a weird way it echoes Kipling’s:
Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!
The apparently racist first line is thoroughly undermined in the following lines though I feel Mouawad, and probably Mozart, would see it as being primarily about two strong women.
It’s an interesting idea and it succeeds in showing the two apparent “opposites” as more similar than different, though I wonder if one needs to be so “interventionist” to achieve that goal. I might argue that it’s all there in the original text and music if a director wants to bring it out and the audience has the willingness to see it but there is surely value in laying out explicitly what may be missed on casual acquaintance. The final scene of the opera says it all really when Selim refuses to be as barbaric to Belmonte as the latter’s father was to him. Intended as a lesson for Belmonte and his father it’s entirely lost on them, as the Prologue shows, though the influence on the girls is clear. Konstanze, and Blonde, and also Selim, are, in fact, depicted as much more fully rounded humans than anyone else in the piece. Even Osmin is less of a buffoonish savage and becomes almost philosophical. The unredeemed characters are the Western men though perhaps by the time the girls have taken them back over what happened some degree of enlightenment is achieved by Belmonte and Pedrillo.
How then, is the central story presented? It’s the standard opera more or less with dialogue inserted for the characters to comment on or reflect on their actions. It plays out on a unit set. In the first two acts we see a hemisphere projecting from the back wall at centre stage and two massive blank walls either side. These walls are moved about to create various minimalist reconfigurations of the space. In Act 3 the hemisphere is revealed in all its glory as a two level hollow sphere which serves as seraglio and as prison. It’s simple but rather beautiful. Different moods are mostly brought off by an effective lighting plot. It’s all efficient and doesn’t hold the action up. Costuming is broadly traditional though Selim and Osmin’s very simple outfits eschew any element of exoticism. The chorus; male and female, appear as androgynous “eunuchs”. There’s some effective use of female supers and little girls to suggest a degree of quiet domesticity in Selim’s domain. There are also lots of flower petals. The story telling and the commentary on the flashbacks is well integrated in the dialogue. There are quite a few small but effective touches including Osmin singing his Revenge aria to a small girl with a teddy bear.
It’s the sort of production that needs thoroughly committed acting from the principals and it gets it here coupled with some really fine singing. Both the girls have quite complex stories to tell and have to be able to present conflicting emotions in speech and song. They do this well. Jane Archibald’s Konstanze is the heart of the piece. She portrays her obvious attraction to Selim, her unwillingness to break her word to Belmonte and her realisation that she will never again fit happily into any man’s world with heart wrenching honesty. She also knocks the big arias out of the park with precise coloratura made all the harder, I suspect. by the generally slow tempi. Claire de Sévigné’s Blonde is an appropriately earthier foil. Her sentiments are less refined but her conflicts equally well portrayed. It’s a fine singing performance too.
Gorin Jurić’s Osmin has an unusual gravitas here and it’s a joy to hear some seriously low bass singing. Raphael Weinstock doubles as Selim and Belmonte’s father. His Selim is, in his way, as tormented as Konstanza and this comes over clearly. His cameo as the thoroughly obnoxious father is effective in quite a different key. This production does rather make the boys into hapless chumps but they work with it. Mauro Peter, as Belmonte, gets much more music and he sings it in a classically beautiful, stylish Mozart tenor voice. It really is very fine. Owen McCausland plays Pedrillo. His acting is excellent and his voice is an interesting contrast with Peter. There’s a harder edge to it. Whether this is deliberate or a sign that the voice is getting bigger I’m not sure. He certainly sounded less classically Mozartian than in last year’s Magic Flute. I should add that throughout the lengthy passages of dialogue, given in German of course, everything was audible and well articulated. That’s far from always the case with spoken word.
Johannes Debus conducted. The sound from the orchestra was precise and quite light, almost like one would hear from Tafelmusik. I’m impressed by how the same orchestra can sound so different from piece to piece. Tempi, as remarked before, were on the slow side. It’s a sign of the conductor supporting the production concept I think. That’s something Johannes does very well. Having conductor and director on the same page is really important in a production like this and here that’s achieved. The chorus doesn’t have a lot of singing to do but what they do is precise and nicely blended.
This may be the most cerebral Entführung I’ve seen. It’s short on belly laughs but the humour is there in a more dry and pointed way. It draws out the humanity of the piece in a way that’s far more affecting than playing it as a screwball comedy in the commedia tradition though no doubt there will be those who would prefer that. There’s also some very fine music making.
Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail plays the Four Seasons Centre with six more performances between now and February 24th.
Photo credits: Michael Cooper except the fifth and the last which were taken by Gary Beechey.