Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Die Entführung aus dem Serail

24 November 2010

Queen Elizabeth Hall

Queen Elizabeth Hall (Photo: Morley von Sternberg)

There is a paradox in this concert performance of Mozart’s opera, in a new translation and narration by Simon Butteriss. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenments aim is to get as close to the original Mozartean sound as possible, which seems at odds with updating the narrative to the start of the twenty-first century.

While, however, this may seem strange, it really shouldn’t bother anyone. The OAEs aim is surely to produce the best sound possible for this opera, which can be done by replicating that which Mozart himself envisaged. If, conversely, new light can be shed on the piece as a whole by updating the narrative aspect, then that is an entirely separate issue.

The piece is still sung in German, but the surtitled translation uses contemporary English. The original German rhymes are given English counterparts leading to such gems as Dirty boys, forever creeping / Up on women, while youre peeping, and English phrases are played upon to produce lines like Im content to hate and see.

The melodrama is similarly replaced by an English narration delivered by Butteriss. Self-conscious jokes are introduced, including Osmins bass voice proving he is not one of the Pashas eunuchs, and Belmonte really not wanting to hear another tenor sing. The update also sees the Spanish characters becoming modern English people, viewing the Turks as unenlightened Muslims who will never join the EU if they dont understand freedom and democracy. This strand of humour sometimes feels crude, but fundamentally it is no different to what Mozart and his librettist Gottlieb Stephanie were doing in the original. They were sending up typical eighteenth century European attitudes to orientalism, before showing the Pasha to be the most enlightened and forgiving character of all. Similarly, in Butterisss version the joke is surely not against Turkey but against ourselves for our own narrow-minded and ill-informed attitudes.

A greater problem lies in the total absence of the Pasha. This is, of course, because he never sings, but it does feel a bit like staging Richard III without the Duke of Gloucester. His role may be small, but his presence is crucial in highlighting key values. While it would feel futile for someone to be introduced to the stage just to sit there, Butteriss could perhaps embody the role more as part of his own narration. Certainly, the singers gesture even when sitting down, and when the narrator reports that Pedrillo drank a bottle of wine, Tilman Lichdi acts this out with his own water bottle.

The cast is very strong, although not entirely without its faults. Susan Gritton as Konstanze demonstrates a sweet and effortless head voice. The tenderness she shows in Ach ich liebte, as she recalls her love for Belmonte, also feels entirely in tune with the strength of character she demonstrates in Martern aller Arten as she reveals total understanding of the tortures that lie ahead for refusing the Pashas love. Malin Christenssons Blonde is feisty and spirited, cleverly using a flirtatious delivery to actually assert the independence of modern English women.

As Belmonte, Frdric Antoun is a powerful, yet smooth, tenor, although his acting style doesnt help to bring gravitas to the character. He seems intent on cramming twelve separate arm gestures into every minute, and no expression ever seems to be held or followed through. Tilman Lichdi as Pedrillo produces a beautifully textured, multi-faceted, sound, and his performance of In Mohrenland gefangen war is an undoubted highlight of the evening. His voice, however, is not as powerful as Antouns, and the otherwise beautifully sung quartet Ach Belmonte! Ach, mein Liebe is sadly imbalanced, with Antoun and Gritton somewhat overpowering Lichdi and Christensson.

Alastair Miles is on top form as Osmin, his grim, gruff bass voice raised to another level by possessing such a dark edge. Under the baton of Bernard Labadie, the OAE bounds along at a suitably vibrant pace, the precision, detail and subtlety in its sound being matched by an equal measure of flair and exuberance.

The performances on the night aside, Simon Butterisss version of Die Entführung aus dem Serail may have its flaws, but it is certainly not a waste of time. Its strong points ultimately outweigh its weak, and it should be enjoyed in concert halls for many years to come.

Further details of Queen Elizabeth Hall concerts can be found at southbankcentre.co.uk

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