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See latest reviews of other albums..., September 2016

The excellent cast includes American soprano Laura Aikin (Konstanze), the charismatic Edgaras Montvidas (Belmonte), Kurt Rydl (hilarious as Osmin, the Pasha’s servant), Mojca Erdmann as the cheeky Blonde, Michael Smallwood (Pedrillo) and Steven Van Watermeulen in the non-singing role of Pasha Selim. This is a thrilling and intelligently innovative account of Mozart’s comic tale of abduction, love, loyalty and forgiveness. © 2016 Read complete review

Richard Wigmore
Gramophone, May 2009

It’s not all innocence and happy-ever-after in this subversive production

Director Johan Simons’s take on Die Entführung is summed up by a remark in one of the accompanying interviews: “At the end people see that the Pasha is a much better match for Konstanze than Belmonte is.” Other productions have suggested a mutual attraction between the heroine and her oriental captor. Simons carries this to extremes. His staging is dominated by Konstanze’s inner struggle between her loyalty to her betrothed and her disturbing feelings for the man who, we sense, has awakened her sexually. Far from resisting his advances, she and the youthful, half-westernised Pasha, subtly and believably portrayed by Steven van Watermeulen, can hardly keep their hands off each other during her opening aria; and the longing she sings of in “Traurigkeit” here takes on a very different meaning. Konstanze’s first encounter with Belmonte provokes confusion, even resentment, rather than joy—no wonder his suspicions are aroused in the Act 2 quartet. Only the prospect of dying with him seems to resolve her dilemma. Yet even in the final vaudeville, exchanged glances with the Pasha suggest an undertow of regret for romantic passion and exotic adventure sacrificed in the cause of duty.

While there are irritating details in Simons’s modern-dress production, I found it psychologically credible, often compelling. Laura Aikin vividly portrays Konstanze’s fluctuating emotions in dialogue and aria. If “Traurigkeit” ideally needs a softer, more plangent colour, she makes “Martern aller Arten” a graphic embodiment of her conflicting feelings of desire and guilt, charging the stratospheric coloratura with a sense of neurotic desperation.

In Simons’s conception Belmonte is an anxious, self-absorbed ditherer, understandably fazed by Konstanze’s initial coolness towards him. Wearing a more-or-less permanently bemused air, Edgaras Montvidas sings his four arias with firm, sappy tone, if no special grace of phrasing. Michael Smallwood makes a likeable, resourceful Pedrillo, cheerfully enduring Osmin’s sadistic hair-pulling and nose-tweaking; and Mojca Erdmann, clad in mini-skirt and high-heeled patent leather boots, is a delightful, thoroughly self-assured Blonde, impatient with Konstanze’s soul-searching, and using her sexual power to reduce Kurt Rydl’s formidable, orotund Osmin to a doe-eyed baby. In keeping with the whole production, comic gags are largely eschewed. Constantinos Carydis conducts the excellent Netherlands CO with zest and a fair sense of period style. While many will prefer a more comically straightforward staging such as the one from Drottningholm conducted by Arnold Östman (ArtHaus), Simons’s production certainly makes you think afresh about Mozart’s ostensibly innocent, happily-ever-after harem Singspiel.

Mark Mandel
Opera News, April 2009

Johan Simons came from the legitimate theater to create this thoughtful, probing production of Die Entführung aus dem Serail for De Nederlandse Opera in 2008. Clearly he stressed the dialogue, which I’ve never heard delivered with such timing and conviction. There’s also more dialogue than usual, and we hear Mozart’s longer alternatives in some musical numbers.

As Simons sees it, Konstanze has fallen in love with Pasha Selim. She initiates kissing and caressing but seems not to have yielded. When Belmonte shows up, she is not happy to see him. Duty and cultural identity demand that she return to her betrothed, whom she still loves, but her sexual attraction to the exotic Selim is greater, so she’s torn. Simons seizes a score reference to “a black mute” and creates such a character—a watchful slave to the Pasha who knows his duty but is moved to tears by Konstanze and Belmonte and, in their duet, brings them together. When his master reappears, the slave reverts to duty, kicking Belmonte, but he has foreshadowed the master’s change of heart.

The decor suggests modern Turkey. Simons leads Belmonte and us into the Pasha’s palace (or is it just his place?) through theater imagery, setting the action first before a red curtain, then before a fire curtain that may be a nightscape of Istanbul, which rises to reveal the inner sanctum—a stage-within-a-stage with glitzy lights, gorgeous lamps and hanging chains of glinting gold discs, where Selim and friends enjoy dressing in traditional Turkish costume. In Act III, the sets fall in two startling crashes. Finally, on a barren stage, scrutinized by his people, Selim makes his humanitarian decision.

Soprano Laura Aikin convincingly expresses Konstanze’s complex emotions and sings the demanding role in tone that is evenly produced through nearly all her range, thinning only at the very top, on the high Ds. Especially beautiful is her slow, sustained singing in the recitative to the duet with Belmonte. In a cast of fine actors, tenor Edgaras Montvidas as Belmonte is the most intense and compelling of all. Alas, when he sings ardently in the passaggio area, he bleats. “Wenn der Freude Tränen fliessen” is a particular trial.

Bass Kurt Rydl “owns” the role of Osmin; this is his fourth video in the part. With his large voice and personality, Rydl provides most of the comic punch in a most serious Entführung. He sounds as strong at age sixty as he did under Mehta six years earlier, even if he does change the word order in his rondo to get an easier vowel for the held low D (as others have done). Steven Van Watermeulen’s Selim begins like a better-dressed Osmin, klutzy and all the more human for it, but summons dignity in the end.

Mojca Erdmann’s lovely, focused, flexible soprano spans Blonde’s vast range without strain, from gleaming high Es in “Durch Zärtlichkeit,” an aria she graces with trills and other ornaments, to the Osmin-imitating low A-flat in their duet. In high-heeled boots and short skirt, this Blonde is a leggy beauty who strides the stage like a runway model and wields power over Osmin and Pedrillo through erotic teasing. As if things weren’t steamy enough, the camera shamelessly zooms in on Erdmann’s physical assets. Tenor Michael Smallwood’s Pedrillo is endearing and attractively sung.

Conductor Constantinos Carydis can be fussy: in “Martern aller Arten,” he brakes six times for the phrase marked ad libitum, six times returns to allegro, then races through the coda. He transmits his feverish intensity to the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra, which is not a period-instrument band but plays like one, with unanimity of phrasing and explosive chords. Listeners will be very aware of the orchestra and the conductor driving it.

Prospective buyers will split over the conducting, the direction and the modern setting. Only Montvidas’s singing as Belmonte keeps this Entführung from being a solid contender. Solti–Moshinsky and Böhm-Everding remain the safest choices.

Robert Levine, February 2009

Laura Aiken is a womanly, complex Konstanze, and the role is entirely within her scope. Her runs are close to spotless (blurs near the end of “Martern…” are forgiven), and the nearly three octaves do not scare her. Mojca Erdmann is a fine, pert Blonde, with nice, clear high Es and a real, Despina-like attitude.

Belmonte is sung by the young, handsome Lithuanian tenor Edgaras Montvidas. His breath-control is staggering, his tone manly, his demeanor, stylish. He tends to sing at only one dynamic level—mezzo-forte—and close-ups find him grimacing too much, but he's an excellent new Mozart/Donizetti voice and should be heard. Michael Smallwood's Pedrillo is finely tuned and well-acted. Kurt Rydl offers a great Osmin, both vocally and dramatically…The sound and picture—and direction for small screen—are superb, and subtitles are supplied in all major European languages and Dutch. Bonuses include rehearsal footage with “explanations” of the outlook by director Simons, an introduction to the cast, and brief interviews with each of them.

Simon Thompson
MusicWeb International, February 2009

It is most welcome to have this performance of Seraglio from Amsterdam. While the production will raise some eyebrows it is never less than thought-provoking, and the singing is mostly top-notch.

Leading the pack is the excellent Konstanze of Laura Aikin. She shows utter security in Mozart’s most difficult soprano role, especially in her two big killer arias in Act 2. Traurigkeit has a plangent tone of despair to it, while still seeming beautiful, and her top register creams off the challenging top notes in a way that showcases the character’s humanity. Martern aller Arten is every bit as good: the fiendish coloratura is fired off with seeming ease, and that’s especially remarkable in the light of the many odd contortions the director requires her to pull while singing it! True, the leaps and runs at the end of Ach, ich liebte are less secure, but they’re always going to be in a live recording—it’s her first aria, after all—and it takes the rarefied conditions of a studio recording to achieve perfection here. Mojca Erdmann’s Blonde is perhaps even more secure, but there is a very obvious contrast in their voices which enables their characterisation to develop differently. Erdmann’s soprano is bright and clean at the top, glistening like silver in Durch Zärtlichkeit und Schmeicheln, but brimming with exuberance in Welche Wonne, Welche Lust. She gives us down-to-earth contrast while her mistress scales the dramatic heights of her distress. Opposite her, Michael Smallwood is perhaps the perfect Pedrillo. He acts with remarkable good humour, not least when he is being beaten up by Osmin, and his tenor voice carries a burnished glow to it, while at the same time being light and pingy. He deserves to be heard more often. The chief veteran of the cast is Kurt Rydl’s Osmin who can still astonish in this role. His voice has a thunderous resonance to it, making Osmin by far the biggest presence on stage. He dominates every scene, from his studied ignoring of Belmonte in Act 1 through to his jubilation at his – supposedly—imminent execution in Act 3. The power of his voice is so great that it feels almost like it comes with a built-in echo. The only doubt lies over Edgaras Montvidas’s rather watery Belmonte. There is very little ring in his voice: from his entrance aria he seems unsure of himself, pale and somewhat out of his depth. He makes all the top notes, but there is little comfort in listening to him and he is the colder, less comfortable element in every ensemble. That said, the moments when the singers come together are still fantastic, and the reunion quartet is absolutely glorious, as good as I’ve ever heard it. Equally, Belmonte and Konstanze’s duet before they are set free in Act 3 carries all the emotion and musicality that one would hope for from this piece.

So what of the production? Johan Simons’ central idea is that during her captivity Konstanze has fallen in love with Bassa Selim, but that the commitment she previously made to Belmonte is preventing her from acting upon it. He thus reverses the accepted idea that marriages of convenience existed in the east but not in the west, and on this foundation he builds a whole structure of artifice. The production draws attention to its own theatricality in an almost Brechtian manner. The opening confrontation between Belmonte and Osmin takes place on a pair of red auditorium seats, and once the curtain raises we see a trompe l’oeil backdrop depicting an empty stage receding off to the back wall. When this is raised for Selim’s entrance, we see that his palace is laid out like a large proscenium with a stage in the middle, and it is on this stage that the characters all perform. The cast interviews included in the extras suggest that Simons is drawing attention to the lack of understanding between east and west, and that the whole opera takes place in a fake world dreamt up by the Europeans who have not understood their Turkish counterparts. It’s an interesting conceit, and is played out in smaller details too: Konstanze’s body language is much more intimate with the Bassa than it ever is with her fiancée, and she looks far from pleased to see Belmonte when he appears in Act 2. This is mirrored, albeit with less consistency, in the portrayal of Blonde, who dresses like a dominatrix in her riding jacket and knee-high boots. She titillates Osmin, even whipping him during Durch Zärtlichkeit, suggesting a reversal of the way their relationship is traditionally perceived.

All of the theatrical devices—sets, costumes, props—then disappear during the last act until, most spectacularly, the proscenium of the Bassa’s palace collapses leaving the stage utterly bare. By this point all the characters—except, interestingly, Osmin—are wearing modern western dress. This all happens just as the truth of the Bassa’s relation to Belmonte’s father is revealed, so all the western misconceptions of the east are laid bare and resolved. The release of the prisoners then becomes somewhat muted, and the ebullience of the final chorus jars with the dark picture on stage.

This concept won’t appeal to everyone, and there is an argument that it is too intricate to fit with the text, but I enjoyed watching it, and it is good to have a Seraglio that engages with the conflict between east and west without dressing everyone up in turbans and scimitars. Don’t be put off by the photo on the cover of the DVD: that’s all part of the artifice too! It helps that all the actors seem convinced by it and they throw themselves into the concept, even the highly stylised acting of the final scene which is reminiscent of Japanese Nōh drama. In such a production the role of Bassa Selim assumes even more importance than normal, and Steven Van Watermeulen seems to relish this, playing the various nuances of the character with skill, and just enough over-the-top exuberance.

In the pit the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra acquit themselves admirably. They play on modern instruments, but the strings carry a hint of period inflection, and the timpani sound as though they could be natural. Carydis keeps the Turkish moments going at a fair lick, and this seems to be too much for a recalcitrant piccolo during the overture, but his reading is not all greased lightning. The tender moments are allowed room to breathe: for example, he takes the opening of Ach, ich liebte daringly slowly so that the contrast of the faster sections is even more marked. The chorus sing well during their brief appearances.

For someone wanting a Seraglio that will make them think rather than revel in Turkish kitsch, this DVD can be strongly recommended. Carydis uses the text of the 1982 Neue Mozart Ausgabe, It’s the same one used by Gardiner in his recording on Archiv with the English Baroque Soloists. The result is a few musical additions that will surprise those used to recordings of the 1960s and 1970s.

The extras include interviews with the cast and director and backstage rehearsal footage, setting a high standard for what a modern opera DVD should have. The picture quality is very good, as is the sound, even if the voices initially seem very far forward in DTS 5.1. Great as the singing is, though, it will be a long time before any edition will replace Karl Böhm’s audio recording with the Staatskapelle Dresden in my affections. With zingy orchestral playing, great solo contributions and a perfect Konstanze from Arleen Auger, this is still the one to beat.

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