An uproarious stage performance of Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio K. 384, on July 23, 2010, was given by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Johannes Debus conducting, featuring soprano Lisette Oropesa as Konstanze, a Spanish lady; soprano Ashley Emerson as her English maid, Blonde; tenor Eric Cutler as her noble Spanish fiancé, Belmonte; tenor Anthony Stevenson as Belmonte’s former servant, Pedrillo, now serving as Pasha Selim’s supervisor of gardens; bass Morris Robinson as the Pasha’s country house overseer, Osmin; Will LeBow as the narrator; and a mixed chorus of 16 Tanglewood Music Center Vocal Fellows. The opera was sung and spoken in German, with English supertitles and narrative text by Simon Butteriss.
For all its buffoonery and sexy lampoonery — underscored by Will LeBow’s shameless emphasis of each and every salacious implication of Simon Buttriss’s hilarious script — the stand-up used send-up of anti-Islamic prejudice to make serious points about our enduring inability to separate person from stereotype. The narration drew attention to our confining assumptions about Moslem addictions to violent fantasy, obsessions with controlling misogyny, aversions to healthy sexuality, and rejections of Western morality.
In the end, there was a seeming paradox in the Pasha’s granting liberty to the captured, loving couples. Despite Osmin’s insistence on, and Kostanze’s and Belmonte’s expectation of, torture and execution, the Pasha, on realizing that Belmonte was the son of the arch-enemy who had exiled him from his own land during the Crusades, repudiated Belmonte’s father’s cruel path by granting mercy to his son. When the tables were turned, the Pasha invoked a higher justice. His forsaking retribution allowed the captive lovers to pursue their happiness free from his control, and turned the stereotypes on their heads.
Nuanced dynamics and supple, responsive string and woodwind playing in the overture made it clear that Mozart was in good hands with Johannes Debus standing in on short notice for James Levine, who is recovering from surgery. This young German conductor, who currently serves as Music Director of the Canadian Opera Company, has a long and deep interest in opera and an impressive repertory. He delighted in this debut, expressing in confident rhythms, gracious gestures, finely turned phrases, precise cues, and lots of smiles, a friendly comfort with world-class players and singers and an intuitive feel for Mozart and musical humor. Drawing from all of them terrific ensemble work, spectacular solos, and, from the singers, dazzling duos, trios and quartets, Debus responded with gratitude, engaging deeply in every interchange, even as he steered the ship with accuracy and style. The evening flew by, even though the love-songs were ever so gently paced.
The comedic timing, too, was totally unhurried, and the singers dug into their roles with gusto. When a Mozartian synthesis of story, melody, rhythm, and role comes across so convincingly – would that it happened more often! – one must acknowledge not only the coordinated efforts of the conductor, cast and orchestra, but also the serious preliminary work of rehearsing and coaching the singers who carry the roles. For this superb expression of the composer’s vision, the audience was indebted to Tanya Blaich, who teaches in the piano and voice departments of the New England Conservatory of Music and served as both rehearsal pianist and vocal coach.
Morris Robinson’s Osmin was a star turn straight out of Sid Caesar, with expressions worth a thousand laughs and body moves that recalled the glory days of live TV. His stunning voice, with low Eb’s and Bb’s of surpassing potency, flowed seamlessly across the range, giving special luster to the bass legato lines in the vocal ensemble, and real firepower, when he needed it, at the top. His laughable bluster was spectacularly unconvincing, but he modulated and tempered every outburst. How glorious it was to see such a big man with such a huge instrument making such a fuss with such a light touch! It was a delight to see hear him again, four years after his splendid Tanglewood debut as the Commendatore in Don Giovanni, and again in that role last year. (Your reviewer could not but think as he admired Robinson’s work that had Mozart had the foresight to score a tuba in the brass section, BSO principal Mike Roylance, another big guy with a light touch on a huge horn, could have given him a run for his money. To be sure, it wasn’t until the late 19th century that sufficiently precise valves enabled the invention and construction of the tuba. Consequently, the salaried orchestral tuba player always counts among his or her dearest friends Johann Sebastian, Ludwig, and Wolfgang.)
The first act of the opera included impressive arias by lovely Lisette Oropesa, a powerhouse soprano whose supple embellishments, including real trills, gave convincing emphasis to the long phrases that signified Kostanze’s longing for her fiancée, and, before the dénouement, her philosophical acceptance of a terrible fate at the Pasha’s command.
Eric Cutler’s mellifluous tenor was perfectly suited for the dignified Belmonte, pining “I’m going to find you, Kostanze!,” utilizing melisma-infused inflections in a big, sweet, focused voice. He, like Oropesa, filled the Shed with gorgeous sound, easily rising over the orchestra, the balance skillfully calibrated by Debus and both singers’ musical intelligence. Cutler’s performance was delightfully reminiscent of his effervescent role as the “Italian tenor” in Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier” at the Metropolitan Opera last New Year’s Day. One surely sensed his potential then, but the greater emotional range and gravitas of this comic role suited him much better.
Oropesa (Kostanze) soared gracefully to the outer limits of the soprano range, hitting no fewer than ten high D’s as she asserted her emotional independence from the Pasha, with not a shiver from her robust, satiny timbre. A crisis then was presented, when the Pasha (through the narrator) informed her that she must make up her mind to love him by the next day, or else. But Pedrillo appeared and introduced Belmonte to Osmin as an American architect who had just arrived to help the Pasha extend his palace. Step #1 of the abduction strategy!
Pedrillo’s amorata, Blonde, sung by Ashley Emerson, considered her own parlous situation in the face of Osmin’s clumsy advances in a skyrocketing aria replete with flights of legato to a high D and then, spectacularly, to a high F, before descending effortlessly in a Bb major arpeggio to a confident cadence. Stunning!
The narrator noted that Osmin was not a “Moslem fundamentalist” but rather a “Moslem sentimentalist. ” (The use of such contemporary epithets came across as good-natured parody of our own stereotypes, not as judgments of religious or cultural archetypes.) Although he might aim to seduce Blonde, he asserted, she would be as resistant to his overtures as her mistress was to the Pasha’s.
In the accompanying aria, the diminutive Blonde threatened the hulking Osmin with violence if he didn’t back off. Growling at one another in the low notes of both the female and male lower registers and expressing their mutual bewilderment in the other’s actions, they badgered one another in a splendid duo that poked fun at the limits of masculine pretension and control. Blonde is English, he asserted, and who can fathom how such women can be so resistant? But an English girl’s spirit is free even when she’s forced into a burkha, she replied. Here, Mozart counterposed Blonde’s fabulous sassiness against perfectly blended strings in a rapid 6/8 meter. If anyone in the audience were wondering here about Gilbert and Sullivan’s inspiration for their pointed patter on proper Englishmen, this peppery portion of the play presented the potion perfectly plainly.
Kostanze sang again of her sadness and love of Belmonte in a challenging and lengthy aria marked with long leaps to high Ab’s followed by glorious descending scales — Mozart emphasizing her pain and longing in these superbly punctuated, downward swoops of melody – proceeding through exposed, perfectly-articulated F minor accented arpeggios to a touching ending (“a withered rose that never shows is no less wretched than my heart”) that was echoed by John Ferillo’s sweetly sympathetic oboe, and reciprocated warmly by Debus’s gracious and enveloping left-hand gestures.
Concertmaster Malcolm Lowe ornamented Ferillo’s and flutist Elizabeth Rowe’s nuanced opening fragments of a little intermezzo with swirling C violin arpeggios across the range of instrument. The flute twinkled over an affecting oboe legato, and brief variations were tossed around as Osmin mused about how “torture unabating must be for men awaiting.”
The music ostentatiously ignored the silly man’s fantasies, a critical perspective that needed no verbal elaboration in the text. Cellist Jules Eskin joined the instrumental quartet as Kostanze explored the philosophical meaning of her impending death (“Dying will be never, for virtue must be its own reward”). In this formidably challenging aria, the initial phrases looped around the high soprano register, with legatos lines flowing around the interval high G to high C culminating in a sustained high B as Rowe’s flute toyed gently with her own highest register. Mozart’s orchestration balanced brilliantly the singer’s moral resolve in the face of tragedy, her phrases bedecked by the magnificent playing of Rowe, Eskin, Lowe, and the equally virtuosic clarinet principal, William Hudgins. Up to a high D, down to a low B, then up the octaves to B, then sustained C, and a trill on the high D, Lisette Oropesa sang her heart out, surveying the range of Kostanze’s passions, from love to loss, belief to despair, and resolve to withdrawal in a towering cadenza on “Torture and berate me, impotently hate me, dying will be heaven sent.”
Following dizzying runs by unison strings that ascended to a high, sustained Ab, Debus led the orchestra into a crashing coda. To the burst of applause, he asked the four principals to join Oropesa in her bows. They appeared pleased indeed to accede to his request. This was staged opera at its very zenith, the stuff of which only the Boston Symphony, benefiting from the James Levine’s deep operatic connoisseurship and commitment to blazing upward paths for young singers, can bring out in its summer festival.
Blonde (Emerson) then stole a kiss from Pedrillo and further mashed stereotypes of Englishwomen in a voice that was lighter but as supple and expressive as Oropesa’s, openly worrying about Pedrillo’s courage to put the escape plan in motion. He questioned “Should I listen to my terror, risking life’s fatal error?) and responded to a two-trumpet bugle call with stunning, high assertions of confidence. Time for Step #2 of the abduction strategy!
Carrying large and small bottles of wine (the larger one spiked with a sleeping potion), he fortified himself with a sip from the smaller one and induced Osmin to abandon his dietary obligations and join him in that traditional ceremony of manly brotherhood that sometimes overrides religious proscription. Osmin took the big bottle, and they launched into a hearty drinking song, after Osmin’s lame explanation: “I am converted! Drink gave me the courage, I think.”
To the tune of a Turkish march with bass drum banging, cymbals crashing, woodwinds whirling, they drank away and sang “Hail Alcohol,” “Long Live Bacchus.” Pedrillo steered Osmin to bed, and Belmonte prepared the way for the events to follow in a soppy love song featuring a refrain redolent of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, and lines worthy of an 18th-century Hallmark card: “Kissing these sweet tears away may be a lover’s happiest caress.” Over the top but gorgeous nonetheless, two clarinets in silky legato thirds directed the theme to a splendid quartet. Kostanze and Belmonte teased one another about women’s loyalty, men’s faithlessness, with deliciously matching facial expressions and gestures. Over a 6/8 barcarolle, the vocal ensemble was balanced and elegant. Contrasting sustained chords in the orchestra offset the flowing interior lines of by the bassoon, flute, and oboe, and the second act ended with an superbly stilted exhortation to the team to stay together in the drama sure to follow: “Don’t kindle the ember of jealousy’s rage! Let’s live for love only!”
Belmonte sang to love’s conquering all in a splendid aria at the start of Act Three, shortly before midnight, with variations embedded in arpeggios that swept across, down, and up to the high tenor range. Then came the moment the lovers were waiting for, Pedrillo’s song, signifying that he had placed the ladder to the window of their room in the harem and that the time had come for them to descend and join the escape. Mozart set this up with a glorious orchestral device, which added a measure of visual excitement to the stage version of the opera. The violins and violas placed their instruments across their laps and strummed them as if they were mandolins, yielding a soft wash of lovely, slow strumming, and an exquisite diminuendo down to pianissimo.
But Pedrillo’s melody jolts Osmin from his stupor, and when he realizes what’s going on, he reverts to form, intoning threateningly on the satisfying execrations and executions to follow, with such formidable predictions, as he descends to an ominous, low Bb, of “Slipping off the nooses when, at last, you’re dead,” and growls downward to a funereal low F, “Of my triumph I’ll be singing when they slip your neck an agonizing death.”
After they are captured, Belmonte and Kostanze sing of their undying love, and plead their case to the Pasha, promising a ransom from his noble family, whom he names. Realizing Belmonte’s true identity, the Pasha considers their punishment, both for the escape attempt and for the cruel wrong done him by Belmonte’s father so many years before. The Pasha directs Osmin to prepare their execution, and Belmonte and Kostanze sing a mournful duet of love, regret, and responsibility, underpinned by many diminished chords, building tension yet relaxing into major tonalities, as in the stunning progression from Bb, Ab, B diminished, c minor, Bb 7th in the 6/4 inversion to Eb, bowed broadly in the strings.
Mozart infused into Belmonte’s and Kostanze’s professions of love an aura of anxiety through rapid, running eighth notes and frequent passing harmonies. Their singing arched gracefully over the nervousness of the orchestra with sentiments such as “The cause of love will always surmount death” and “Enduring life without you there would be more than I could bear.” Konstanze’s words “It is a privilege to die with one’s beloved,” expressed in a line ending with a high C, and the words “Divine transfiguration will face annihilation” begin with the high C and descend magnificently to a Bb cadence to the words, “Lost in your loving eyes.” This was voluptuous music, given moving voice by Cutler and Oropesa with exactly the right embellishment by the horns, sweeping down to the final cadence in stately arpeggios.
The Pasha resolved these tensions with the announcement, “I despise your father too much to emulate him. Tell your father I have repaid his cruelty with mercy.” These magnanimous words brought forth a fast-paced vocal quartet confection that your reviewer described in his notes as “very G + S.” The music, perfectly apposite to the delight and relief of the characters, brought smiles to everyone, and a realization that in but 36 years of life, Mozart gave us satisfactions that endure through the centuries. His magical linking of story to character to human emotion elevated by music was relived in this performance. Surely as well, Mozart abides in the best works that aspire to tell a story through music on the stage.
Eli H. Newberger studied music theory and reviewed classical music for the Yale Daily News. Performing music, he wrote in “Medicine of the Tuba” in Doctors Afield (Yale University Press, 1999), helps him to care. That chapter and other writings on music and medicine may be found on his website, here.