Prom 39: The Abduction from the Seraglio
Glyndebourne Festival Opera, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Royal Albert Hall, 14 August 2015
The annual visit to the Proms of one of the current series of Glyndebourne Festival Opera productions is always a highlight. Transferring from the relatively intimate space of Glyndebourne’s opera house to the vast Royal Albert Hall obviously has its problems, but the more-than-semi-staging (in this case, with full costumes and props, but no scenery) brings a welcome chance to focus on the music. There were several surprises for those not used to the work, not least that it is a Singspiel, with a lot of spoken text, much of which is usually omitted – but not here. This gave the chance to experience Mozart’s music in its original context of incidental music to a play. The fact that the music is of the utmost complexity only heightens the suspense of waiting for the next bit to start.
The other shock to the opera audience was the revolutionary staging and setting (by David McVicar, with Ian Rutherford directing the Proms version). With our usual diet of opera director’s anything-goes fantasies being acting out, often completely at odds with the known background to the opera plot, it was a remarkable change to be presented with a setting that Mozart himself would probably have recognised. Although the story is set in the mid-16th century period of the greatest Ottoman conquest, the costumes and props (and in the Glyndebourne version, the scenery) are an 18th century Viennese view of Ottoman Turkey.
Almost exactly 100 years before the Singspiel was first performed (in 1782), the Ottoman Empire had laid siege to Vienna (as they had also done in 1529), having already conquered much of Hungary, the Balkans, Greece and Egypt, and posed a real threat to Western Europe. Although their threat had dissipated by around 1700, the image of the violent Turk remained in the psyche, albeit clouded by a real fascination for all things oriental, not least coffee. Stories of harem life abounded.
An advantage of hearing the spoken text performed alongside the music was that the important back-story is evident. One key aspect of this is that the Pasha Selim, (a non-singing role, often underplayed in performance) is actually a Spanish convert to Islam. Knowledge of this makes for a number of interesting interpretation issues, not least whether the final twist is a result of his Christian background or an example of Muslim benevolence. Fortunately, there were no references to present day history, so we could focus on the 18th century take on the Turkish Empire.
One delightful moment, reinforcing the Western cultural roots of the Pasha Selim, came just after his dramatic Act One arrival, to the music of a Janissary band. This was followed by the distant sound of (a recording of) the Adagio from the Gran Partite (K361). The long-held oboe note from the Adagio is then echoed by a similar note at the start of Konstanze’s first aria Ach ich liebte. Unfortunately that aria revealed what was going to be only issue with the singing for the whole evening. Although Sally Matthews has the power and projection to fill the Albert Hall, she uses far too much vibrato, both for comfort and for any sense of period appropriateness. It interferes with almost every aspect of her singing, affecting intonation and, with its generally semiquaver speed, disrupting her virtuosic runs and making a mockery of ornaments. I first praised her in a review when she was a student (in a Mozart opera), but her vast opera experience has affected her more stable youthful voice type.
Shortly after this, we get the Act 2 confrontation between Osmin and Blonde, here enacted to the accompaniment of much plate throwing, enough to earn the stage hand who had to clear it all up a round of applause and a ‘bravo’. Osmin and Blonde were a wonderful pair, arguing and fighting with each other like an old couple, with the feisty Blonde (the spoken text reveals much about her ‘English’ character) opening the scene by slapping the face of Osmin, the uncouth Ottoman despot. Their duet has Blonde attempting to imitate one of Osmin’s extraordinarily low notes. It ends with them throwing macaroons at each other, having run out of plates. David McVicar drew a careful line between treating the work as slapstick and serious melodrama, although there was plenty of both. Although we lacked the scenery, we saw the full stage action, including the member of the Pasha’s harem (the Seraglio of the title). The only directorial issue for me was that the stage action was generally noisy (often unnecessarily so, and at odds with the plot) which must have made listening to the BBC broadcast troublesome.
Mozart had specific singers in mind when he composed the work, and wrote to their strengths with some real virtuosic writing. The Glyndebourne cast rose to Mozart’s challenges magnificently. Edgaras Montvidas was an imposing Belmonte, his aristocratic bearing a nice contrast to the similarly elegant, but rather more macho rival for Konstanze’s affections, the Pasha Selim, brilliantly acted by Franck Saurel. Belmonte’s male foil was Brenden Patrick Gunnell’s bumbling and bustling Pedrillo, hamming the role up for all it was worth. Their respective, and very contrasting, amours were Sally Matthews as Konstanze and the excellent Mari Eriksmoen as Blonde, the latter providing the sort of voice that I would have preferred from Konstanze. Tobias Kehrer was an imposing Osmin, relishing the lowest notes in all opera.
With the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment positioned behind the stage (rather than in the Glydnebourne pit) questions of balance took on greater importance. This was superbly controlled by conductor Robin Ticciati, whose energetic and involved direction was inspiring to watch. He allowed space for the singers, and respected the spacing of the spoken lines – there was no sense of rushing through them to get to the music.
The OAE were, of course, outstanding with several impressive moments from soloists. The instruments included the Turkish percussion instruments of triangle, bass drum, piccolo, and an impressive looking Turkish Crescent (or ‘Jingling Johnny’), a decorative frame covered in little bells and played by shaking it up and down. The only time the fortepiano was really heard was in Konstanze’s recitative Welcher Wechsel. The following aria, Traurigkeit ward mir zum Lose has an example of Mozart mixing his orchestral colours, with a contrast between the sound of a wind band and the strings. Later in Act 2 comes Konstanze’s wonderful aria Martern aller Arten, its status heralded by a lengthy orchestral introduction featuring the oboe, violin, flute and cello soloists that will dominate the aria. Vocally this virtuosic aria is the highlight of the whole piece.
An entertaining prelude to the evening came with Proms Extra, when Louise Fryer introduced Sir Nicholas Kenyon and Karl Lutchmayer to discuss the music – and with the current Proms director Edward Blakeman, play some Turkish music on piano, triangle and tambourine.
[Performance photos by Chris Christodoulou]