Thursday 25 November 2010

Review of Die Entführung aus dem Serail

To the Queen Elizabeth Hall last night for a concert performance of Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail given by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Bernard Labadie, who is the conductor on Ian Bostridge's recent Three Baroque Tenors disc.

Like Cherubini's Médée (which I have recently learned needs to be spelt with two acute accents), Die Entführung aus dem Serail has lots of spoken dialogue. And the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenement (like Chelsea Opera Group at Saturday's performance of Médée) decided to use a narrator. In this case, Simon Butteris, who also wrote the narration and has in fact translated the opera (the singers sang in German but Butteriss's translation was broadcast as surtitles). Mozart's opera gives the poor narrator an added complication in that it is semi-serious.

18th century comic operas (both Italian and German) often mixed the comic and the serious; it was typical to have aristocratic characters who were always serious and provided the love interest, but surrounded by comic servants etc. (This was a style of comedy pioneered by Galuppi and Goldoni). This is true of Die Entführung aus dem Serail, where Konstanze and Belmonte are entirely serious, as is the spoken role of the Pasha, but their servants Blonde, Pedrillo and Osmin are comic.

So any narration had to take account of this. Butteriss opted for simple and direct, using verbal puns and such to provide comic relief. When the moment demanded it he shaded into seriousness in an entirely apposite way. The main draw backs of having a narration were that we lost the rather interesting juxtaposition of music and speech in the opening when Belmonte's spoken questions are ignored by a singing Osmin. More importantly, we lost an entire character as the Pasha never sings so his doings were only ever reported by Butteriss. But, if we had to have a narration (and I understand why concert promoters feel it would be better) then let it be one like Butteriss's, simple, direct and amusing, rather than that used during Médée on Saturday.

OAE had assembled a terrific cast who performed, by and large, without scores. Only Alistair Miles as Osmin used a score all the time and he was a last minute substitution, so it was understandable. Susan Gritton, who sang Konstanze, carried a score but used it more like a comfort blanket than for reference. All the others sang without. The result was a performance which had a surprising amount dramatic vitality.

Susan Gritton made a moving and dignified Konstanze, there were moments when she seemed to push the vocal line about a little, but Marten aller arten had all the power and firmness that could be required. Frederic Antoun as Belmonte was a name new to me. Antoun is a Canadian tenor whose lyric voice brought just the right combination of ardour and firmness to the role.

Malin Christensen was a delight as Blonde, combining focussed accuracy with a delightful pertness, only a badly placed high note in her opening aria marred things. Tilman Lichdi was a charming Pedrillo. Perhaps he mugged slightly too much, but its a tricky role when deprived of the dialogue, but musically he was entirely on form.

Alistair Miles made a slightly serious Osmin, but the part was so finely sung that you barely noticed.

All in all this was a beautifully balanced cast, one that would have done a great deal of credit to a full staging of the opera.

Under Bernard Labadie, OAE gave a lively performance, turning in some lovely instrumental solo moments. The overture seemed to scurry rather too much and seemed in danger of upsetting itself, but things settled down and the danger was averted.

Such a fine performance of the opera made me wonder why we don't seem to have a production of this lovely opera. I can't remember when we last saw Covent Garden's 1987 production, which was notable for having heart-throb Oliver Tobias as Pasha Selim. Lets hope we get a production soon.

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