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Peter J. Rabinowitz
Fanfare, July 2009

The basic conceit here, as soprano Laura Aikin puts it, is that Konstanze “has fallen in love with” Bassa Selim; in the even more provocative words of stage director Johan Simons, the union of Belmonte and Konstanze is a “marriage of convenience.” As operatic interpretations go these days, this heightening of the romantic conflict latent in the libretto is far from outrageous. Yes, it mutes the comic zest of the piece, infusing the final scene with a poignant sense of loss; but handled with tact (mimicking, say, a good production of Der Rosenkavalier), it could deepen the characters and add subtly to their emotional interactions.

Unfortunately, it’s not handled with tact here. During “Martern aller Arten” and the dialogue that precedes it, Konstanze’s internal struggle is staged so overtly and in such an exaggeratedly melodramatic fashion that it might seem funny were it not treated with such deadly earnestness. She teases him with a glass of champagne, giggles flirtatiously, lovingly clasps his hands, fondles him, and kisses him with more passion than she ever kisses Belmonte—while she also glares and screams at him and tries to stab him with a broken glass. When Belmonte finally shows up, she’s so hostile—she even stalks off stage in a huff while he pours his heart out in “Wenn der Freude Tränen fliessen”—that the poor schnook hardly knows how to respond. No wonder he doubts her fidelity.

The heavy-handedness of this psychological reinterpretation, though, is not what undermines the production—nor is it the director’s political position, which laudably stresses the opera’s cultural open-mindedness (as Simons puts it, it’s an “anti-Geert Wilders” production). Rather, the problem is ultimately the leaden account of the score: the timing in the headnote includes all the extras, but even so, the musical performance lasts over 170 minutes. I had high hopes from the Overture, played with tremendous dash, virtuosity, and color (the shrieking piccolos are exceptionally vivid). But as the opera moves along, you get the sense of a clock winding down. At first, the problems are minor: there’s arguably not enough of the buffa carbonation in the act I trio “Marsch! Marsch! Marsch!”—but it’s still reasonably whimsical. However, that hard-to-sustain stretch with Konstanze’s paired arias goes on forever, and after that, the opera never quite regains its footing, especially since the dialogue (ample, but not entirely complete) is generally ponderous.

The singers do a more than creditable job. Aiken forces some of the high passagework (no Teresa Stich-Randall here), but she’s a formidable heroine, especially in her moments of dejection, which have a palpable despair. Edgaras Montvidas, tonally attractive and generally fluent in his phrasing, captures the cluelessness of her country-club lover with beguiling sweetness. Smallwood is a high-spirited Pedrillo. Best of the youngsters, though, is Mojca Erdmann as an effervescent Blonde—in her miniskirt and high-heeled vinyl boots, brandishing her belt and her dazzling smile where necessary, she’s a disarming combination of dominatrix, lap dancer, and apple-pie girl next door, all aspects of her personality tumbling out with self-confident and pure-voiced virtuosity. Towering over the quartet of lovers, though, is the veteran of the cast, Kurt Rydl, a surprisingly sympathetic Osmin who dominates the stage both visually and aurally, and who consistently brings much-needed energy to the production just when it seems ready to expire. Actor Steven Van Watermeulen is a convincing Selim.

As for the staging: the jacket copy insists that this is “bluntly ‘theatre about theatre’”—but that promise of a self-referential mise en abyme is fortunately not fulfilled. Yes, the set is highly stylized, and we get to watch it accumulate slowly, from nearly empty stage to kitschy neo-Vegas Turkey and then back again (the scenery comes crashing down at the end, leaving the finale doubly downbeat). But the singers are never out of character as they would be if they played both “singers” and “character”; and the “theatricality” is never given any thematic weight. (For the record, Aikin, in her interview, insists on the realism of the production.) Rather, this could be described as a visually attractive, modern-dress staging with a few eccentricities that don’t intrude enough to doom the production. The sound is exceptionally good, especially on Blu-ray surround, where you feel you can touch the instruments; the visual component is excellent too, especially on the high-def medium. But in the end, it’s not the spirit-lifter that it ought to be. While I’m waiting for René Jacobs to take on this opera, my favorite recording remains the Rosbaud, despite the distorted sound and the moments of untidiness; but as David Kirk has pointed out in his detailed reviews (e.g., 30:3 and 31:4), there are plenty of more up-to-date alternatives as well.

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