Saturday 5 October 2019

Thought provoking and engaging: Mozart's The Seraglio at English Touring Opera

Mozart: The Seraglio - Nazan Fikret; Matthew Stiff - English Touring Opera 2019 (Photo Jane Hobson)
Mozart: The Seraglio - Nazan Fikret; Matthew Stiff - English Touring Opera 2019 (Photo Jane Hobson)
Mozart Die Entführung aus dem Serail; Lucy Hall, Nazan Fikret, John-Colyn Gyeantey, Richard Pinkstone, Matthew Stiff, Alex Andreou, dir: Stephen Medcalf, cond: John Andrews; English Touring Opera at the Hackney Empire
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 4 October 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Mozart's singspiel in an engaging production which did not ignore the work's complexity

Mozart's first singspiel, Die Entführung aus dem Serail used to be a relatively regular visitor to London stages but Covent Garden has not performed the opera since the 2001 revival of Elijah Moshinsky's production with its Sidney Nolan designs, and I am not sure the last time ENO performed it. Which means we have to travel, Glyndebourne performed the work in 2015 and last year The Grange Festival unveiled a new production by John Copley [see my review]. So thank goodness for English Touring Opera who opened their Autumn 2019 season with a new production of Die Entführung aus dem Serail in English as The Seraglio, teamed up with another work combining words and music Kurt Weill and Georg Kaiser's Silverlake.

English Touring Opera opened at the Hackney Empire on Friday 4 October 2019, with Stephen Medcalf's new production of Mozart's The Seraglion (Die Entführung aus dem Serail) with Lucy Hall as Konstanze, Nazan Fikret as Blonde, John-Colyn Gyeantey as Belmonte, Richard Pinkstone as Pedrillo, Matthew Stiff as Osmin and Alex Andreou as Pasha Selim. Designs were by Adam Wiltshire with lighting by David W Kidd, and John Andrews conducted. The work was performed in Andrew Porter's English translation.

Mozart: The Seraglio - English Touring Opera 2019 (Photo Jane Hobson)
Mozart: The Seraglio - English Touring Opera 2019 (Photo Jane Hobson)
The production opted for a traditional setting, with 17th century costumes, allowing us to make our own connections between the opera and contemporary events. Adam Wiltshire's imaginative set consisted of an architectural box with a central feature which rotated to provide a variety of settings, a workshop for Osmin and Pedrillo, the harem for Konstanze and the concubines. Medcalf was interested in the way the harem featured both luxury and confinement, it looked lovely but was a gilded cage and needed a guard with a key to let the women out.

Medcalf's production was engaging with a lively pace, keeping the dialogue moving yet managed to be thoughtful too. It was funny, but complex and by the end each of the characters had gone on a clear journey and the 'happy ending' was not quite as simple as that. Of course, the eternal problem with a work like this is the spoken dialogue, not all the singers managed the moving, naturalistic understatement of actor Alex Andreou's performance as Pasha Selim (a spoken role), and there was a fair share of moments of 'operatic acting'. But the performance was greater than its individual parts, creating something vividly engaging and, ultimately, thought provoking.

Mozart: The Seraglio - Alex Andreou, Lucy Hall - English Touring Opera 2019 (Photo Jane Hobson)
Mozart: The Seraglio - Alex Andreou, Lucy Hall - English Touring Opera 2019 (Photo Jane Hobson)
Anchoring things were the performances of Alex Andreou as Pasha Selim and Matthew Stiff as Osmin. Andreou (who played Pasha Selim at The Grange Festival last year) made Selim complex and moving, rather scary when roused and not completely self aware but ultimately very moving. Matthew Stiff was something of a revelation as Osmin, combining brilliant comic timing with an underlying sense of threat and nastiness. Stiff is a bass-baritone rather than a bass, and the lowest notes in the role were clearly something of a stretch for him, yet even here he managed to make them count. This was a performance which combined words and music, comedy and anger, and pathos into a whole.

Konstanze is an unforgiving role, any soprano singing it needs to be able to combine lyrical insouciance with killer coloratura of a style which is a world away from Italian bel canto. Lucy Hall certainly managed 'Marten aller Arten' quite superbly, producing coloratura with great brilliance and a lovely bright, even tone all the way up. And this aria is all the more impressive coming almost immediately after a more lyrical one. Perhaps in the quieter moments Hall did not, quite tug the heart strings, yet. But that will come, this was a finely all-round a taxing account of a role. Overall, we got the sense of her ease with the music, and so we know the performance will build.

Nazan Fikret made an equally impressive Blonde, big on charm and personality yet also with a confident handling of Mozart's music. Her scene with Stiff's Osmin at the beginning of Act Two where Blonde's aria is about how to treat women managed to be funny and disturbing, as Fikret gave Stiff a fearsome massage. With Stiff and with Richard Pinkstone's Pedrillo, Fikret created lively and believable interactions, full of soubrette charm yet with a soprano voice which had a bit of steel and temperament to it too.

As Belmonte, John-Colyn Gyeantey did not have a conventional lyric tenor voice but then this was not quite a conventional reading of the role and this Belmonte was somewhat less heroic and less admirable than some. Gyeantey's voice has a certain high-tension to it, and whilst there were finely shaped lyric moments, there were also times when he pushed the music into something more dramatically intense. This was an interesting reading, yet Gyeantey's stage personality was certainly engaging, with a delightful element of naivety.

Richard Pinkstone made a lively and highly dramatic Pedrillo [Pinkstone sang the title role in Britten's Albert Herring at The Grange Festival in 2017, his professional debut, see my review]. Pinkstone had a tendency to slightly overdo the comic business, but this was certainly a vivid and comic portrayal. I worried that he rather pushed his voice too much in his Act Two solo, but the drinking scene with Stiff's Osmin was a complete delight.

The chorus was reduced to four, Rosanna Harris and Hollie-Anne Bangham as concubines, and David Horton and Bradley Travis (replacing Jan Capinski) as guards. Beyond the chorus, they contributed much to the drama and with the whole ensemble singing we certainly did not feel short-changed.

In the pit John Andrews conducted an orchestra based on 12 strings, keeping a lively sense of tempo and with plenty of engaging 'Turkish' music, yet with some nicely lyrical moments. The result was a lithe performance which aptly complemented Medcalf's production.

Mozart: The Seraglio - English Touring Opera 2019 (Photo Jane Hobson)*
Mozart: The Seraglio - English Touring Opera 2019 (Photo Jane Hobson)*
This was the sort of imaginatively engaging performance which drew you in, and certainly kept me entertained and made me think. For the seasoned lover of Mozart's singspiel there was much to enjoy, and for the newcomer there certainly seemed to be plenty to discover and engage. The production, alongside The Silver Lake, travels to Buxton, Gurham, Bath, Snape Maltings, Saffron Hall and Exeter between now and 16 November 2019.

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