OPERA ATELIERS’ “Abduction From the Seraglio” reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Audiences have come to expect delightful surprises from Opera Atelier productions. Our confidence was rewarded right from the ‘Overture’ of Mozart’s “Abduction From the Seraglio” by a brilliant sequence of skits (one of which is pictured here) that tell the back story of the opera. We see Turkish pirates attack a British ship, leave the noble Spaniard Belmonte (Frédéric Antoun) for dead, but carry off his fiancée Kostanze (Amanda Pabyan), and their servants, Pedrillo (Lawrence Wiliford), and the Englishwoman Blondie (Carla Huhtanen) as slaves to the court of the Grand Turk, Selim Pasha (Curtis Sullivan).

The hallmark of an Opera Atelier production is a kind of gaiety that comes from direction that blends more closely than is usual in opera the skills of acting, dancing and stagecraft with the talents of the featured vocal artists. Thus synchronized, the energies of the production conspire with a composer like the young Mozart to buoy up even dark and weighty situations like  enslavement. It is as if the spirit of Shakespeare’s Ariel were intoxicating the characters to lighten up from within.

There is also the incredible lightness emanating from Mozart who wrote to his father that he was so delighted by the book that he completed the music for Kostanza’s first aria and the terzet that closes the first act in little more than a day. His stated working principle was that though “rage oversteps all moderation, measure, and bounds…music must not; … and music even in the most awful places must not offend the ear, but give pleasure; that is music must always remain music.”

This opera, written in 1781, as Mozart was in the process of dealing with his own liberation from father and ecclesiastical patron, is the first of his humane comedies where reconciliation and forgiveness replace punishment and revenge. He accomplishes this by suggesting amendments to Stéphanie’s text, and by making an alliance between his music and Italian comic opera.

Opera Atelier directors Marshall Pynkoski and Jeanette Lajeunesse-Zingg emphasized the classic commedia dell’ arte elements that make lighthearted fun instead of tragedy out of the collision of Christian and Muslim worlds. Even when Belmonte is caught in the crime of attempting an abduction from the seraglio, Selim Pasha not only forgives him but sets him and his party free. And all is well.

But here’s a little rub. Somehow, after the overture, and despite excellent performances by all the principals, the production somehow leaked energy, especially until the intermission partway through the second act. Some of the lack could be put down to opening night stiffness: the awesome Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra seemed to slacken the pace a bit, the dancing was not always quite synchronized. Throughout, the non-singing Selim Pasha was arrayed to look more like a genie out of a bottle than like a head of state. The bilingualism of the Turkish court in which the dialogue was spoken in English but the Arias were performed in German somehow worked to break the flow of the moment, at least for me. These were problems coming from the direction.

Amanda Pabyan conveyed with conviction Konstanze’s anguish over her separation from her fiancé, Belmonte, and her steadfast refusal to resist the Pasha Selim (her abductor) with dignified grace. She controlled the dynamic contrasts demanded of her agile voice during her showpiece aria “Martern aller Arten.” Carla Huhtanen in the role of Blondie, the perky maid, sparked with her mistress as sisters in the European female cause, and she succeeded in being bubbly, vivacious and dominant in her relationship with her boyfriend Pedrillo, played by Lawrence Wiliford an appealing tenor with an attractive stage presence.

Gustav Andreassen brought charisma and comic timing to the role of Osmin, the pasha’s thuggish overseer. I sometimes held my breath in passages where his booming voice plumbed the depths of the role’s cruelly low tessitura, but we never lost him. The scene of his first introduction to alcohol and a lively scene between him and Blondie, who instructs him on how to treat European women, got plenty of laughs.

Frédéric Antoun was appealing in voice and appearance as Belmonte. He succeeded in portraying the beating, loving heart so dear to Mozart in the aria “O wie Angstlich, o wie feurig’. Gerard Gauci’s set designs provided a wealth of impact that did not fade as the acts proceeded, though the corner benches were overused by couples exchanging confidences. Kevin Fraser’s lighting was cheerfully ambient. Margaret Lamb’s costumes, artfully suggest commedia dell’ arte elements, and the dancing always provoked pleasure, especially during the mock-torture scene.

Performances continue through to November 15.

Comments are closed.