The Abduction from the Seraglio

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Published: 8th February, 2016

Melbourne Opera’s 2016 season was launched with Suzanne Chaundy’s inventive transposition of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail into a 1970’s context. The practice of updating the social context of standard repertoire has led to some bizarre and wrong-headed convolutions that appear to show scant regard for the libretto or the needs of the singers. Chaundy’s interpretation, however, worked remarkably well and was one of the more convincing and better thought out examples Melbourne audiences have seen of late, either live or “live in HD”.

Composed in 1782 this product of the 25-year-old Mozart’s genius was a huge success in his time. Keen to create a repertoire of works performed in German, the Austrian Emperor Joseph II set up the Nationalsingspiel, which commissioned the work. In many respects it presaged Die Zauberflöte with its blend of spoken and sung text. In fact, the role of Pasha Selim, the Turk who abducted Konstanze, Blonde and Pedrillo, is only spoken. In keeping with the Emperor Joseph’s aims, Melbourne Opera presented the work in the language of the audience. Nevertheless, the couple of German inclusions, most notably Konstanze’s Act 2 aria, would certainly have pleased him and the enthusiastic and generous supporters of Melbourne Opera, the Henkell family. Lee Abrahmsen’s splendid singing made this aria a highlight of the evening.

Although the opera has its serious and touching moments, Chaundy set out to emphasise the comedy; both dialogue and action were often ingeniously devised to hilarious effect. The image of a feisty female of the type featured in The Avengers and used in MO’s publicity material was initially projected onto the front scrim. This gave way to a series of newspaper images during the Overture to establish the context. Belmonte became a British aristocrat whose beloved, the German diva Konstanze, has been kidnapped along with her PA, Blonde, and his own trusted associate, Pedrillo.

Upon landing in the “exotic location” to rescue his damsel in distress he is set upon by Osmin, the Pasha’s Chief of Security, and his military style henchmen. One of the factors that made this production work so well was the imposing figure and voice of Eddie Muliaumaseali’i as Osmin. All things considered, it would be difficult to find a bass better suited to the role. Although a little more power on those famous low Ds of Osmin’s Act 3 aria would have been welcome, they were audible. What is more, his top notes were secure and he sang with rich tone throughout.

The dearth of professional performances in Australia is understandable given the virtuosity demanded of the singers. Mozart had outstanding singers for whom he wrote these parts, exploiting their particular gifts. The role of Konstanze is believed to have been the source of the apocryphal “too many notes” remark by the Emperor Joseph; it is an indication of the taxing nature of the music that it has found purchase. Even the likes of Sutherland found Konstanze a daunting role.

The many florid passages, high tessitura and demands on breath control also make Belmonte something of an Everest of tenor roles. While intonation was occasionally compromised in Act 1, greater ease was found in the subsequent two. Christopher Bogg produced some splendid ringing top notes and his Julian Assange like appearance was in keeping with a Belmonte with Secret Service connections.

As Konstanze, Lee Abrahmsen was every centimetre the glamorous diva. Along with Osmin’s “O, wie will ich triumphieren”/”O, how I will triumph”, “Martern aller Arten”/”Tortures unrelenting” are probably the most (possibly, the only) well-known arias from this opera. Abrahmsen’s full, glorious soprano conveyed the fiery resolve of this virtuoso number with considerable dexterity and control.

Paul Biencourt made a lively, confident Pedrillo as he drove much of the action with Cockney-voiced dialogue and pleasing light tenor. As his romantic interest, Hannah Dahlenburg was a vivacious presence with an attractive, vibrant soprano. Musically and technically secure, she was an asset to the ensembles as well as to the general standard of the production. The Pasha Selim of an aquiline-featured Nick Pelomis was generally well projected.

There were a couple of moments that tested the presence of mind of the singers. Christopher Bogg’s experience showed as he extricated himself from the paraphernalia of his parachute jump while negotiating Belmonte’s demanding first aria and Eddie Muliaumaseali’i managed to turn a mishap with the drinks trolley (one that appeared to put some members of the orchestra and their instruments at risk of a watering) into a delicious comic moment.

The comic element was supported by the riotous colour of Daniel Harvey’s costumes, especially for the chorus, and fanciful blow-up beach toys. Attractive, functional Moorish themed sets, originally by Andrew Bellchambers, made effective use of the rather limited stage area.

The members of the chorus do not have a great deal to sing in this opera, but made the most of what opportunities they had with disciplined enthusiasm and energy. Under Greg Hocking, the Melbourne Opera Orchestra gave a lively account of Mozart’s extraordinary score, with some particularly lovely playing coming from the wind section in Konstanze’s arias.

Although possibly an overly ambitious undertaking, this production by Melbourne Opera is very well worth seeing – even more than once, since it is so rarely performed here. This reviewer (no pun intended) is looking forward to seeing it again for the final performance on Tuesday night.

 

Heather Leviston reviewed Melbourne Opera’s performance at the Athenaeum Theatre on February 3.