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Reviews

05 Oct 2019

English Touring Opera's Autumn Tour 2019 opens with a stylish Seraglio

As the cheerfully optimistic opening bars of the overture to Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail (here The Seraglio) sailed buoyantly from the Hackney Empire pit, it was clear that this would be a youthful, fresh-spirited Ottoman escapade - charming, elegant and stylishly exuberant, if not always plumbing the humanist depths of the opera.

English Touring Opera, Autumn Tour 2019: Mozart’s The Seraglio at the Hackney Empire

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: ETO Ensemble

Photo credit: Jane Hobson

 

Stephen Medcalf’s production opened English Touring Opera Autumn 2019 tour of three Singspiels in well-drilled and satisfying style, aided in no small measure by conductor John Andrews’ easy manner and no-nonsense approach which ensured that sustained Mozartian clarity complemented sure dramatic direction throughout.

The instrumental colours were vibrant, the textures clear and crisp; the transparency allowed us to appreciate the inventiveness, and dramatic expressiveness, of Mozart’s contrapuntal writing. Rushing string scales flew with a flourish, martial motifs danced merrily, and the prevailing animation and blithe spirit was tempered by judicious grace and sincerity. This was some of the best playing I’ve heard from the ETO Orchestra characterised by excellent intonation, uniform string style and plentiful lovely woodwind colouring.

Andrews was faithful to the invention and variety of the score. Blonde’s authoritative chastising of Osmin at the start of Act 2, as she pummelled him on his table-turned-massage bench - tender coaxing may conquer a gentle maid’s heart, but surly commands will get him nowhere - was made wry by the beautiful softness of the strings’ accompaniment, and still more piquant by the dry staccato of their subsequent duet. The gentle sincerity of the final quartet, in which the forgiven escapees honour Pasha Selim’s benevolence, dwelled sensitively then swelled heart-warmingly. Andrews made no small contribution to the really lovely Mozartian style that we enjoyed.

Designer Adam Wiltshire offers an economical but effective Moorish milieu, ideal for touring: Turkish candle-lamps, elegant arches and columns, a prevailing cream and indigo architectural palette, with costumes of rich blue, magenta, crimson, emerald, serve to conjure a sumptuous luxury.

Nazan Fikret (Blonde), Matthew Stiff (Osmin).jpgNazan Fikret (Blonde), Matthew Stiff (Osmin). Photo credit: Jane Hobson.

Act 1 opens in Osmin’s estate-manager office in Act 1, set against a starry night-sky backdrop. Ottoman learning makes its presence lightly felt, via the trunks, piles of books, telescopes, tapestries and tools that line Osmin’s walls. He is no mere harem-keeper or rough boor: rather, he is the overseer of the Pasha’s property, a man of clout, cleverness and status. Wiltshire’s set swivels to reveal the Pasha’s harem: a glittering aviary of gilded arches for his cantabile concubines. One further twist, in Act 3, takes us to the pristine heart of the Pasha’s palace.

Medcalf’s energetic direction is not overly fussy: the characters are always on the move, looking through doorways and windows, circling and swapping places, but this seems a natural physical manifestation of Mozart’s busy counterpoint. Moreover, the cast’s choreography is perfectly timed: if there is little room for spontaneity then the rigorous rehearsal will serve them well on tour. The extended quartet at the close of Act 2 is a perfect example of their accurate agility: the two angry women, accused of infidelity by their ungallant beaux, switch back and forth with the grace of a pair of doves, indignation and accusations swirling. If the scene does not quite equal the dramatic transition effected when the Count begs forgiveness of his maligned Countess in the final Act of Figaro, then the number is discerningly executed. Andrew Porter’s English translation is very clearly sung and spoken, amusing with its deft rhyming couplets and occasional blunt colloquialisms.

Die Entführung was Mozart’s first great public success in Vienna, first performed at the city’s Burgtheater on 16 July 1782. The vocal virtuosity it demands of its cast is a result of the stellar singers at Mozart’s disposal at the National Singspiel, including Johann Ludwig Fischer (the first Osmin) and Catarina Cavalieri (the first Constanze) - whose ‘flexible throat’ Mozart had admired in a letter to his father of 26th September 1781.

John-Colyn Gyeantey (Belmonte).jpg John-Colyn Gyeantey (Belmonte). Photo credit: Jane Hobson.

The ETO cast were equal to the challenges. Indeed, the role of Osmin seemed tailor-made for bass Matthew Stiff, who managed to be simultaneously imposing and foolish, nasty and pitiful. Even when insulting the hapless Belmonte in Act 1, this Osmin’s elegance of line and beauty of tone intimated a dignity beneath the derogatory rudeness. It didn’t matter how high or how low Stiff’s bass was asked to venture, his tone was attractive and expressive, agility complementing basso profundity. Perhaps alone among the cast, Stiff transcended character stereotype: we could sense a real, human dilemma, as desire battle with duty, and an innate misanthropy resulted in personal misery. Stiff’s Osmin was certainly menacing and brusquely short-tempered - slipping with delicious ease into a roll call of the panoply of punishments he wishes to inflict on his foes, whom he dreams of slaughtering and quartering. But, he also had a heart that he, perhaps unwillingly, exposed and with which we empathised.

I haven’t always found John-Colyn Gyeantey’s tenor to be firm and focused, and he’s no natural stage animal; but Gyeantey has a surer feel for comedy than for the tragic tone and was well-directed here by Medcalf. Indeed, Belmonte is not an easy role, and somewhat passive: as Blonde, Pedrillo and Osmin ‘act’, so he hangs about waiting for a rescue-bid that others organise for their ‘conquering hero’. Gyeantey was a slightly cautious Belmonte, but his stage capers with Osmin and Pedrillo were niftily executed. His diction was clear, though his divisions were not always clean and at times he fell behind Andrews’ nimble beat. If his romantic effusions were not always suave then the tenor conveyed the sincerity of his love for Constanze most touchingly at times. Occasionally there was a tendency to try to make too much of the words, thereby disrupting the lyrical flow of the line: Gyeantey could just let Mozart’s phrasing do the work and more effortlessly achieve a shapely legato line. But, he offered some attractive singing and well-centred characterisation.

Alex Andreou (Pasha Selim), Lucy Hall (Konstanze).jpgAlex Andreou (Pasha Selim), Lucy Hall (Konstanze). Photo credit: Jane Hobson.

Constanze is probably one of most challenging soprano roles in the standard repertoire, and Lucy Hall’s essay of the musical mountains was admirable. Although she leapt with impressive accuracy to the peaks of her Act 1 aria, in which she reiterates the strength of her love for Belmonte, there was a little tightness as she ventured upwards, but subsequently she demonstrated stoical grace, vocal stamina, and by Act 3 the translucent shine was certainly glowing.

Nazan Fikret’s Blonde was not a maiden one would want to mess with: confident, subtly comic, she reached to the extremes of the role’s extended vocal expanse with ease. As Pedrillo, Richard Pinkstone was appealingly chirpy of manner and spirited of vocal tone; his lovely romance, sung while balancing on the rescuers’ ladder, was a masterclass in less-is-more communicativeness. Alex Andreou was a firm, fierce but fair Pasha: his latent majesty and menace would certainly have worried Belmonte, but he demonstrated reflectiveness and a truly regal beneficence. The four-strong ensemble were well-drilled, dramatically and vocally, and their gracious decorum - as guardsmen and concubines - contributed to the consistent tenor of the whole.

Matthew Stiff (Osmin), Richard Pinkstone (Pedrillo).jpgMatthew Stiff (Osmin), Richard Pinkstone (Pedrillo). Photo credit: Jane Hobson.

Poor old Osmin receives much (unwelcome) moral guidance in the closing moments: having been admonished by Pasha Selim that it is better to show justice and forgiveness than to punish one crime with another, he is then reminded by the forgiving quartet that a noble heart does not concern itself with vengeance. Medcalf largely avoids acknowledging the intrinsic, and undeniable, European triumphalism of the Singspiel, in which enlightened Western values conquer a degenerate and demonised Orient. And in this regard it’s worth remembering that Pasha Selim is not ‘converted’ to Western liberalism: he is a renegade Westerner who has taken refuge in Turkey, taken up the Islamic faith and risen by merit: were he of Oriental origin - as Osmin’s example illustrates - he would, according to eighteenth-century opinion, be immune to the forces of Enlightenment.

Medcalf doesn’t really show us the way that Mozart’s music humanises the libretto’s stereotypes. This is a light and lively Seraglio, rather than a philosophically profound exploration. But, perhaps there is rather too much to ponder and worry about in the world at the moment, and Medcalf is wise to encourage us just to sit back and enjoy Mozart’s musical tale of love lost and found.

Claire Seymour

Mozart: The Seraglio

Konstanze - Lucy Hall, Blonde - Nazan Fikret, Belmonte - John-Colyn Gyeantey, Pedrillo - Richard Pinkstone, Osmin - Matthew Stiff, Pasha - Alexander Andreou, Ensemble (Rosanna Harris, David Horton, Bradley Travis, Hollie-Anne Bangham); Director - Stephen Medcalf, Conductor - John Andrews, Designer - Adam Wiltshire, Lighting Designer - David W Kidd, Orchestra of English Touring Opera.

Hackney Empire, London; Friday 4th October 2019.

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