Marc Haefele, who edited Philip K. Dick, was the dean of the LA City Hall reporters, and covers culture for Off-Ramp. This time with a capital C, when he reviews Mozart's "Abduction from the Seraglio," performed by the LA Opera.
At the end, you felt good, satisfied, whole. The train had pulled into Paris’ Gare del Este and the tricolor-waving chorus was reprising Mozart’s resplendent mock-Ottoman first-act production number, “Hail Pasha Selim.” Mozart’s own idealized 18th Century humanism had prevailed: the captives were set free, the four young lovers, portrayed by incredibly talented young singers, reunited. The Islamic potentate, so recently their captor, turned out to be one peach of a guy.
The audience for LA Opera’s “Abduction from the Seraglio’’ had been treated to a perfect, yet not-overly-familiar, necklace of Mozart arias and ensembles, each of them of the highest-quality music ever written.
It was a great night for our local opera company. And yet…
But first, let’s credit the good.
“Abduction” is one of Mozart’s least pretentious operatic works. In its time, its spoken dialogue made it the precise equivalent of a Broadway musical. But it's dauntingly difficult to perform. The cast, chorus and orchestra rose to the occasion and beyond.
Massively challenging arias come along, one after the other. Sometimes in pairs; Konstanze, sung by soprano Sally Matthews in her LA Opera debut, gets the challenging “Welcher Wechsel” almost back to back with “Martern Aller Arten,” one of the hair-raisingest and ruggedest arias in the entire repertory. I could not believe how well Matthews negotiated it, and with what wrenching sincerity and feeling she sang her vow that she would gladly prefer to die under torture than endure the embrace of a man she did not love. It’s a serious peak in a more or less lighthearted opera. But the astounding aria, with its beautifully involved concerto-grosso-style orchestral accompaniment, underlines Konstanze’s grim choice that is the heart of the story: agonized death or a life of sexual servitude.
The problem, of course, is the harsh dissonance of the staging conceit of this particular production: instead of being set in the usual 16th Century Turkish palace, the producers put it on the Orient Express in the 1920s. So instead of occurring in the potentate’ s stronghold in a hostile land, Selim’s threats are made on a public conveyance that Konstanze is free to hop off at the next stop. Thus the threats ring absurd, and so does the scene: instead of waving hot tongs, Selim is reduced to showering the heroine with expensive presents, and the most central and wonderful music in the entire opera feels like it’s snuck in from some other show. This happens elsewhere, when the actions and locations in the singing and dialogue simply don’t match the staging.
And the narrative ... runs off the rails.
But back to the good stuff.
As in many Mozart operas, there are two couples in “Abduction,’’ respectively high and low class. Joe Prieto, a stylish tenor with a rich, full voice and a stage presence unmitigated even by his geeky brown windowpane-check suit, is superb as the errant Spanish aristocrat Belmonte, Konstanza’s lost love. Brenton Ryan was an agile and physical Pedrillo, whose servant character is foil to the rather dreamy Belmonte. Soprano So Young Park was an astonishing Blondchen, Konstanza’s maid, who has most of the smarts in the story. Although partnered with Pedrillo, she struck true sparks off her antagonist, the horny Haremmeister Osman, sung by imposing basso Morris Robinson, a very large man with the grace of a gymnast and an agile, wide-ranging voice (give or take a couple of low “D”s).
A good time was had by everyone, even when that was not the point. The music shines over all.
There are two performances remaining of the LA Opera's production of Mozart's "Abduction from the Seraglio:" Thursday and Sunday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Tickets start at $19.00. Really. Dress up in Roaring Twenties costume on Thursday and get free champagne.