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Performances

Susan Gritton [Photo courtesy of Askonas Holt]
03 Dec 2010

Die Entführung aus den Serail, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

With its tricky ‘orientalist’ connotations, Singspiel-originating spoken dialogue, not to mention the problem of finding five outstanding singers who can cope with the considerable demands of the solo roles (and the commercial challenge presented by the need to pay a chorus who sing barely a few bars of music), Mozart’s Die Entführung aus den Serail does not receive as many stagings as it deserves.

W. A. Mozart: Die Entführung aus den Serail

Belmonte: Frédéric Antoun; Pedrillo: Tilman Lichdi; Constanze: Susan Gritton; Blonde: Malin Christensson; Osmin: Alastair Miles. Narrator: Simon Butteriss. The Joyful Company of Singers. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Conductor: Bernard Labadie. Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, Wednesday, 24 November 2010.

Above: Susan Gritton [Photo courtesy of Askonas Holt]

 

In 1781, having finally shaken off his over-bearing father, Mozart found himself in Vienna, a city which had previously welcomed and feted him as a prodigious child performer but which had little knowledge of his early operatic successes; or, indeed, awareness of his operatic ambitions. When Gottleib Stephanie the Younger, a successful actor and dramatist who had recently taken charge of the National Singspiel in Vienna, happened to give the young composer a libretto to consider, Mozart’s interest was immediately stimulated, and he wrote enthusiastically to his father of about his new ‘Turkish’ project. The subject matter was ‘convenient’ for the intended occasion of the premiere was the state visit in September by Grand Duke Paul Petrovich of Russia and his wife, in order to devise a clandestine agreement that would allow Austria and Russia to begin dividing up the Ottoman Empire.

Although, in the event, Mozart’s opera was not completed in time for the diplomatic visit, its colonial, propagandistic overtones can sit uneasily with modern audiences. Add to this the idiosyncrasies of the singspiel genre, and it is perhaps not surprising that performances of this opera are relatively rare. However, it contains many delights, and this concert performance of a new translation and narration, commissioned from Simon Butteriss by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, tackled the potential problems bravely, and with striking wit and panache.

This may be opera seria, but Butteriss has adopted an altogether more ambiguous mode; his translation and narration are wry, self-referential, and self-knowing. This might have proved tiresome, but in the fairly intimate setting of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, among a musically knowledgeable audience, he struck just the right note.

Much of the credit for the success of this performance must go to conductor Bernard Labadie, who moved the action swiftly on, whipping up a dramatic momentum and comic immediacy from his performers. The overture was pacy, perhaps overly so, but Labadie managed the extraordinary integration of the overture and opening scene with aplomb, controlling the transition between the multi-section, multi-tempi overture and the first aria most skilfully and establishing a dramatic vitality which was sustained throughout the performance. Without undue exaggeration, Labadie drew striking contrasts from his orchestra: a piquant piccolo and oboe complemented the interesting, nuanced timbres of the trumpets and horns, and enthusiastic string playing provided a springy foundation for woodwind colourings. Moreover, Labadie maintained a good balance between instrumentalists and singers, particularly in the concertante-style numbers. In particular, in ‘Martern aller Arten’ — which is practically a sinfonia concertante for voice and instruments — Susan Gritton’s voice swelled magnificently, but the soloist remained only one of several solo instruments.

The young French-Canadian tenor Frédéric Antoun displayed a beautifully smooth line, as the fervent Belmonte, and would undoubtedly have won the heart of Constanze with ease. After some initial wobbles of intonation, he settled effortlessly into the suavity of the role, his ardent tone adding weight and variety of colour. Dramatically relaxed throughout, Antoun’s aria, ‘Ich baue ganz auf deine Stärke’, was particularly impressive.

As Pedrillo, Tilman Lichdi demonstrated a sharp sense of wit (the risk of overkill was just about kept at bay), but his important serenade, ‘In Mohrenland gefangen war’, presented a welcome contrast and was expertly controlled and shaped.

Alastair Miles was a last-minute substitute for Timothy Mirfin in the role of Osmin, and this may explain his occasional air of overly serious concentration. While he used his face expressively, his need to read from the score did rather detach him from the relaxed immediacy of Lichdi’s and Antoun’s confident partnership. Miles gave a solid performance, and articulated the text well, but found the lower regions of the role quite challenging.

Susan Gritton, as Constanze, demonstrated the stunningly beautiful lyricism for which she is renowned and negotiated the intricacies with ease, although she didn’t always pay sufficient attention to the openings and endings of phrases. Faced with the comic capers of Pedrillo, Blonde and Osmin, Gritton effectively established the dignity of the role. She clutched a score, her thumb marking the page, throughout, although it remained closed; as Gritton has previously recorded this work it made one wonder why this was necessary as it was a little distracting. Moreover, her diction was rather careless. Denigrated as “hack work” by Mozart scholars such as William Mann, and disparaged by Edward Dent as the “very worst [libretto Mozart] ever set to music”, the text here was sung in German with English subtitles. Even if we allow that the verse may be execrable, it still would have been nice to have consistently heard the German enunciated clearly and crisply.

Malin Christensson had a battle to complement Gritton’s vocal weight, particularly in the ensembles where the latter projected powerfully and with poise; but as Blonde, Christensson gave a convincing, committed reading of the strong-minded servant and sang sweetly, with vivacious animation.

The Joyful Company of Singers waited patiently for their brief chorus at the end of Act 1; in the event, they were rather subdued, lacking the necessary lightness and energy — although this may have been a result of their positioning, at the rear of the stage, which made it difficult to project over the vibrant orchestral fanfares.

Butterriss’ obvious enthusiasm for this opera was contagious; his urbane narration, slickly sliding between comedy and seriousness, banished any sense of the potential discomforts or difficulties of the singspiel genre, and drew committed performances from his colleagues. Overall this was an enchanting evening, one which made one long for a full staging of this opera.

Claire Seymour

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