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Performances

Sally Matthews [Photo © Johan Persson]
14 Jun 2015

Die Entführung aus dem Serail,
Glyndebourne

Die Entführung aus dem Serail was Mozart’s first great public success in Vienna, and it became the composer’s most oft performed opera during his lifetime.

Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Glyndebourne

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Sally Matthews [Photo © Johan Persson]

 

But, to modern directors and company it presents a host of challenges: the extreme vocal virtuosity of the principal roles, its juxtaposition of genres and stylistic eclecticism, and, not least, its dubious political agendas.

At Glyndebourne, director David McVicars, directing his first Mozart opera for the company, plays it straight, setting the opera during the time of composition, while confirming that the clashing cultures of East and West, and the problems which arise when they attempt to co-exist, are no less relevant today than in 1782. For McVicars, however, Die Entführung is less concerned with cultural value judgements than with the examination of the various mores and social forces which are antithetical to individual freedom, especially that of women. And, the director illuminates the way that Mozart’s opera adopts a foreign perspective in order to critique the practices of a supposedly enlightened European society.

McVicars’ message is communicated with a light touch, though, and vocal and visual beauty far outweigh didacticism. Vicki Mortimer’s beguiling visual designs are economical and efficient, synthesising the Middle East and the Mediterranean, and combining the decorative elements of the European Baroque and Rococo with the ornate trellises and arabesque-adorned walls and arches of the waterside yali.

Layered sliding screens glide in geometric networks allowing glimpses of secluded interiors — private chambers, inner and outer courtyards, alcoves, vaults — their pierced openwork and tracery permitting in shards of light and air. Between the weathered stone façade and the ocean-fringed rear terrace, we gain an impression of the vast expanse of the Pasha’s mansion, from the basement kitchen to the recesses of the intimate boudoir, via stairwells and passageways, to the elegant topiaried rose garden. Paule Constable’s lighting creates subtle shifts of solid and void, a play of sunlight and shadow, and through the intersecting polygons of the latticework we glimpse the secret movements of the seraglio — a world which is populated by the Pasha’s wives, children, concubines and eunuchs, overseen by the imperial guard. Constable’s lighting is also effective in merely hinting at the sensuousness of the seraglio; colour is used sparingly — the boudoir burns with an opulent red glow, flame-topped columns flicker agitatedly through Osmin’s gloating celebration — and it is the formality and decorum of the Ottoman world which is emphasised rather than its exotic or erotic excesses.

McVicars neatly balances movement and tableaux. Counter-posing crockery-throwing tantrums, bacchanalian dissipation, and clumsy ladder-born escapades are carefully composed visual portraits. Thus, their flight interrupted by a vengeful Osmin, Belmonte and Konstanza say their final farewells as they await the Pasha’s dreaded judgement, ‘Welch ein Geschick! O Qual der Seele’ (What dreadful fate conspires against us). Beside and beyond them, Pedrillo and Blonde cower, watched over by the scimitar-wielding vigilant guard, and the overall effect of the composition recalls the paintings of Eugene Delacroix. The final vignette frames the Pasha within a monumental portal, silhouetted against the sparkling blue-black Bosphorus; as he affectionately bears one of his small children aloft, his gaze poignantly follows the lovers’ ship as they sail to their freedom.

The production also effectively blends frivolity and genuine menace. The humour is judiciously measured: there are outlandish gestures which take us by surprise — Osmin’s inebriated belly-slide along the stretched table, or the exuberant cartwheel with which he anticipates and celebrates his triumphant hour in Act 3 — but also small touches which raise a gentle laugh: ‘exhibited’ on a three-legged stool, sporting a fancy frock coat and feathered hat as Blonde attempts to ‘civilise’ him, Osmin shows more interest in the tiered tray of dainty cakes on the table beside him, than in becoming the ‘European gentleman’ who might have a chance of winning her heart. But, alongside the humour is terrorising aggression: we are reminded of Osmin’s brutality, and his power, when he savagely demands ‘love’ from Blonde — unlike his master, he entirely lacks compassion and virtue. And, although the conventions of the genre may reassure us that the lovers will ultimately be forgiven by the high-minded, magnanimous Pasha, there is a threatening tension as we wait to learn their fate.

Lithuanian tenor Edgaras Montvidas, last year’s Lensky, returns to the house to tackle the demanding role of Belmonte. Montvidas seemed nervous in his opening aria: his tenor was rather tight and unyielding, and he struggled to shape the phrases with requisite graceand to control the expressive upward chromatic inflections. The tension, however, did fittingly convey Belmont’s inner conflict, torn as he is between his fervent hopes of seeing his beloved Konstanze again and his fretful fear that she may not have remained faithful under the duress of the Pasha’s passionate advances.

However, while his tone is not the most seductively lyrical, Montvidas displayed greater vocal suppleness as the opera proceeded, coping well with the high range, and the pliant phrases of his Act 3 aria, ‘Ich baue ganz auf deine Stärke’ (Love, only love, can now direct me) demonstrated excellent breath control. Throughout he acted with thoughtfulness, ever the elegant Spanish aristocrat.

Sally Matthews, as Konstanze, also grew into the part. It’s a formidable role with its taxing diversity of moods and styles, extensive coloratura, wide range, and stamina-sapping Act 2 show-stopper ‘Martern aller Arten’ (Tortures of all kinds), in which the action pauses for 10 minutes while Konstanze delivers music of astonishing virtuosity to ensure that the Pasha recognises her unassailable honour.

Konstanze also embodies one of the opera’s more general problems; that is, the need to integrate the seria style within a Singspiel. And, this difficulty was apparent in Matthews’ first aria, ‘Ach ich liebte’ (How I loved him), where her somewhat hard, glinty tone seemed at odds with the ardency Belmonte’s preceding aria, in which he vows to rescue her, and the jubilant warmth of the chorus of Janissaries which welcomes the Pasha’s arrival. However, her Act 2 lament ‘Welcher Wechsel herrscht in meiner Seele’ (Oh what sorrow overwhelms my spirit) was more dramatically direct, and the fioritura fireworks of ‘Martern aller Arten’ served not only as a demonstration of technical brilliance but were employed expressively to reveal Konstanze’s emotional schisms and distress.

The aria also introduced what I found a questionable line of argument: for this Konstanze seemed rather too attracted to the dark and dashing Pasha, the respect and esteem that she avers coming close to outright adoration and sexual desire as gazed with intense longing into his dusky eyes. How is one to interpret her protestation, ‘Nothing, nothing, nothing — nothing will shake me!’? Honourable defiance or an attempt to deter her own wavering heart from temptation? Though her emotions have undoubtedly been moved by the Pasha’s nobility, surely the aria’s long instrumental introduction and Konstanze’s own tender appeal to his benevolence, ‘Let yourself be moved, spare me, and may heaven’s blessing be your reward’, suggests a woman of heroic forbearance and courage, who sees her suffering as a trial to test her love for Belmonte?

McVicars, however, imagines her declaration as an almost sadistic, manipulative rebuke. The Mozart scholar, Alfred Einstein, criticising what he saw as the aria’s excessive length, once described the number as a ‘long piece of heroic virtuosity to which the poor Pasha simply is compelled to listen’, and the Pasha’s presence on stage throughout does present dramatic difficulties. But, even Einstein could not have imagined that Konstanze would dismiss her master’s threatened tortures and refuse to yield to his demands all the while caressing his naked chest as the Pasha pants and palpitates. His after-words, ‘Is this a dream? Where does she get the courage to behave in such a manner towards me?’, suggests a man transfixed by her dignity and elevated righteousness, which deflect him from force to stratagem. Moreover, the apparent boldness of Konstanze’s desire made her subsequent angry refutations of Belmonte’s suspicions less than credible, and weakened the contrast between her own steadfastness and the less constant pragmatism of Blonde. This was a shame as musically the Act 2 finale was a highlight of the production, moving persuasively from elation, through doubt and indignation, to reconciliation.

In the comprimario roles of Blonde and Pedrillo, Norwegian soprano Mari Eriksmoen and American tenor Brenden Gunnell, almost upstaged the principals. Both displayed impeccable comic timing and nuance, and their fresh, alluring singing inspired affection. Gunnell’s Pedrillo was a resourceful, boisterous scallywag with a warm heart and an understandable concern to save his own skin. His exuberant delight at arrival of Belmonte was infectious, a perfect foil for his master’s refinement, and his final tentative requests for mercy — after all, he’s been a loyal servant — understandably disarming. Gunnell’s lovely warm tone and relaxed naturalness made his folksy Act 3 Serenade a real treat, and his tenor was coloured with baritonal tints which nicely countered Belmonte’s high register.

As the stripy-stockinged Blonde (a nod, perhaps, towards the ‘bluestockings’ who during the 1750s became a leading force for enlightened feminism?), Eriksmoen combined the feisty attitudes and sharp tongue of a champion for female equality with the manipulative guile of a servant wench. Her first aria, ‘Durch Zärtlichkeit und Schmeicheln’ (With smiles and kind caresses), in which she sets out the strategy for success in courtship — tenderness and flattery, not terror and force, are the way to a to the European woman’s heart -was sweet-toned, cleanly delivered and charming. But, should we be tempted to see Blonde as the opera’s voice of reason, her comical irrationality and emotional instability were immediately exposed by her hysterical threats to scratch Osmin’s eyes out.

German bass Tobias Kehrer was a terrific Osmin: a blond-dreadlocked oaf, whose genuine feelings are suppressed by his inarticulacy and brutishness, he prowled the palace like a frustrated Heathcliff — without the romantic hero’s redeeming good looks — a Caliban of the citadel, whose Ottoman ear was, unlike Shakespeare’s ‘beast’, ill-tuned to its civilised music. Unable to comprehend, let alone communicate, the hurt caused by Blonde’s contemptuous rejection of his advances, Kehrer’s Osmin retreats to cold-hearted callousness, wallowing in violent, vengeful fantasies of ‘poison and daggers’. He delights in vandalising Pedrillo’s gracious topiary, snipping the secateurs with glee and maliciously squashing the round top-piece, presumably as he imagines crushing Pedrillo’s own head. But, when we have witnessed his humiliation at the hands of Blonde, who mocks his masculinity, and Pedrillo, who tricks him into breaking his Muslim vow to forswear alcohol, who could not feel some pity when, bewildered by the compassion of the master he has loyally served, Osmin lays down his scimitar and departs, isolated and irredeemable?

Kehrer was not tested by the extensive range of the role, and the suavity of his subterranean notes, complemented by hints of a softness buried deep in his heart, were intriguing and moderated our distaste for his pitilessness. This was a vocally and dramatically commanding performance.

The spoken role of Pasha Selim is a tough one to bring off, for while the absence of song emphasises the Pasha’s difference, it is difficult to create a convincing, three-dimensional character in the absence of the music which humanises and defines the other characters. However, Franck Saurel did much to convey the Pasha’s noble civility and self-controlled reserve, and his final declaration of clemency — ‘It is a far greater pleasure to repay injustice with a good deed than to repay one depravity with another’ — surprised both the Christians and the Turks, suggesting that the opera is less concerned with cultural judgements and more with the nature of human goodness. That Konstanze will indeed regret turning him down was intimated by the ardent kiss she bestowed before the lovers’ departure, as a troubled Belmont turned his gaze aside.

Conducted by Robin Ticciati, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment made evident the profundity of the music. Ticciati negotiated the intricate structures — the long ritornelli introductions, the complicated instrumental dialogues with the voices, the independence of the contrapuntal vocal lines in the ensembles — cogently, and made the wealth of thematic material and diverse orchestral colours clear and well-defined. The instrumental concertante lines in ‘Martern aller Arten’ and Belmonte’s ‘Ich baue ganz auf deine Stärke’ entwined enchantingly around the solo voices. The sudden fortes of the overture erupted like a bursts of sunlight and the warmth and brightness was sustained throughout.

The Glyndebourne Chorus — comprising the Pasha’s harem and guard, and a host of hopeful hangers-on seeking the Pasha’s patronage — sang lustily in the final chorus of praise to their master. The ending sparkled with the vitality of youth and love, and shone with the heroism of honour. At the first performance, Emperor Joseph reportedly remarked to Mozart that there were an ‘extraordinary number of notes’. This charismatic and compelling Glyndebourne production suggests that he may have been right: that these copious riches form music which is indeed almost ‘too beautiful for our ears’.

Claire Seymour


Cast and production information:

Konstanze, Sally Matthews; Belmonte, Edgaras Montvidas; Osmin, Tobias Kehrer; Blonde, Mari Eriksmoen; Pedrillo, Brenden Gunnell; Klass, a sea captain, Jonas Cradock; Mute, Adrian Richards; The Guard, Daniel Vernon; Conductor, Robin Ticciati; Director, David McVicar; Designer, Vicki Mortimer; Choreographer, Andrew George; Lighting Designer, Paule Constable; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, The Glyndebourne Chorus. Glyndebourne Festival Opera, Saturday 13th June 2015.

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