Robert J Farr
, July 2011
This opera is defined as a singspiel, a work of musical numbers interspersed with spoken dialogue. Mozart had already had significant success with his youthful Il re pastore and La finta giardiniera, both presented in 1775. He seems to have got into singspiel mode in Salzburg in the winter of 1779–1780 with the revision of La finta giardiniera into Die gärtnerin aus liebe. This involved the replacement of the sung recitative by spoken dialogue as well as a change of language. He then went further and began the composition of another work in this genre. Perhaps influenced by the contemporary craze in Austria and Prussia for all things Turkish, and ever-competitive, Mozart might also have been keen to upstage Gluck’s harem opera La Rencontre imprévue—a runaway success since its Viennese premiere 1764. It is not known if he was commissioned to write the work or the provenance of the libretto. However, after a while and with no prospect of a staging, Mozart abandoned it. Left without overture or final dénouement of a second act finale, the incomplete opera came to be called Zaide.
Whilst Mozart might have been frustrated by the lack of opportunities to stage his new singspiel, the summer of 1780 brought the commission for a new opera seria. This became Idomeneo—a significant success. Meanwhile, Gottlieb Stephanie, Stage Director at the Burgtheater, the Court Theatre set up by Emperor Joseph II in an attempt to promote singspiel, had been impressed with what he had seen of Zaide. He had promised Mozart a new libretto that would be even more congenial to him whilst also being on the Turkish theme. This was Die Entführung aus dem Serail. Mozart was greatly taken by the libretto and composed with enthusiasm. In the work Mozart does not eschew formal musical structures in pursuit of simplicity and does not hesitate to include elaborate arias and complex textures in the orchestra. Die Entführung aus dem Serail waspremiered on 16 July 1782 and becamehis first truly outstanding operatic success; its music is full of invention and vitality as well as having particular vocal challenges for the heroine. Mozart’s concern for the Turkish theme underlies the whole work and is also reflected in the many additions he had made to the original libretto.
At a personal level Mozart, after his split, not without some rancour, from the Archbishop of Salzburg’s employment, and whilst composing Die Entführung aus dem Serail, became engaged to Constance the third of the four Weber girls and, in respect of his fiancée, moved out of their house. They married on 4 August 1782. Wolfgang maintained the marital home by teaching pupils of the nobility and as a composer including a number of piano concertos and solo arias for friends. He appeared as soloist before the Emperor whilst still thinking of opera and reading many possible libretti.
I have always enjoyed this opera, which, whilst not the equal of his later and greatest singspiel, Die Zauberflöte, has many strengths. In recent years it has been rather neglected, perhaps out of mistaken political correctness which has also led to some rather quirky productions including one set on The Orient Express; yes, a train for a harem—any thing or gimmick is possible for some directors and designers. I could not imagine how it could work and it didn’t. Similarly, Opera North treated the work as slapstick. I have to go back to the early 1980s when Glyndebourne produced elegant sets by William Dudley alongside a touring cast that brought the best out of Mozart’s creation. Those elegant sets and production were caught on film at the main Festival and, like this performance, has been issued on DVD (Arthaus 101 091). This production is similarly true to Mozart in its elegant staging of flown and moving screens, allowing for swift transition between scenes, and with lighting effects adding to the colours and aiding mood and setting. The costumes are in period and are as opulent as the set. Yes, there is one little gimmick, but it is inconsequential and I won’t spoil your surprise.
If the production virtues outlined above were not enough to guarantee a successful and eminently recommendable performance, the singing and conducting are of like quality. Zubin Mehta is not a conductor I associate with Mozart. Conducting without a score, as far as I could see in the occasional shot by the skilful Video Director, Mehta does Mozart’s creation full justice drawing scintillating playing of rhythmic brio and character from his orchestra. Being the considerable opera conductor he is, Mehta also supports his singers in the demanding arias, duets and ensembles.
Mozart certainly makes considerable vocal demands on his singers in this opera, none more so than on the imprisoned heroine Constanze. Having warmed up in Ach ich liebte (Ch.11) she scaled the heights in Traurigkeit (Ch. 19) and was well up to the extended demands, in length and vocal range of Martern aller Arten (Ch. 22). The tall and elegant Miss Mei is well versed in the vocal demands of this role. After graduating from the Conservatory Luigi Cherubini in Florence in 1989 she won the International Mozart Competition in Vienna for her interpretation of Konstanze, making her debut in the same role later in the year at the Vienna State Opera. Not only can she sing the role she can also act the part too. Her demeanour as the Pasha presses his suit and her expressions of anger at Belmonte’s doubts are well expressed in body and facial language to match her excellent singing. In the only slightly less vocally demanding role of Blonde her compatriot Patricia Ciofi plays a feisty girl well able to sort out Osmin’s carnal intentions. This Blonde is in no mood to be influenced by his flexed six-pack after he climbs from his steam bath (Chs.16–17). Her coloratura is secure and is allied to a warm and womanly tone and convincing acting.
The male singing trio is dominated by Kurt Rydl as Osmin. Vocally he may not erase memories of Gottlieb Frick in the role. He suffers from the odd moment of loose tone, but his acting of the role is simply outstanding, conveying every nuance of the nasty and bossy Osmin; an absolute delight. His bullying of Pedrillo is well-played and not overdone, whist Mehrzad Montazeri’s vocal and acted portrayal, particularly when tempting Osmin to take some alcohol, is also worth mention. No political correctness about tempting the Muslim Osmin to partake and go into prayer mode at the name of the Prophet in this production (Chs.25–27). Montazeri’s tenor is strong and he plays the demanding secondary tenor role well without being overwhelmed in ensembles. His final act romanza is well phrased (Ch. 33). As the lover Belmonte, who comes to rescue Constanze, Rainer Trost’s strong tenor moves easily between the demanding registers and with a welcome use of some soft singing. His basic tone has an edge to it that the microphone accentuates a little; he could be a little more vocally mellifluous, but his ardent phrasing and involved acting more than compensate (Chs. 8, 32 and in the act two and three finales 29–30, 39 and 40). Trost’s vocal expression and acting, as Belmonte comforts Constanze when they are faced with death, is particularly notable (CH. 37).
Last but not least of the male contingent is the demanding spoken role of Bassa Selim. This is a role that is by no means easy to bring off. The actor has to play a convincing, even threatening, suitor of Constanze in act one (Chs. 9–10) and then show dignity after Selim’s magnanimity in freeing the intruders after discovering one, Belmonte, is the son of his bitter enemy (Ch.38). Markus John’s acting and spoken inflections fulfilled these varied demands with conviction and sincerity.
The sound is well balanced and clear with the picture quality of a similar high standard. Add the video director’s sensitivity to all the nuances of the work and the imaginative lighting, particularly in act three (Chs. 31–41) and this is an outstanding issue.
There is an interesting essay about the background to Mozart’s composition of this opera and its performance history in Italy. This is given in English, French and German and adds to the pleasure.