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Abduction is captured in sound and stage

Wortham Theater Center
01/18/2008 -  and Jan. 20*, 26, 30, Feb. 2
Mozart: Die Entführung aus dem Serail
Paul Groves (Belmonte), Tamara Wilson (Konstanze), Nicholas Phan (Pedrillo), Heidi Stober (Blonde), Andrea Silvestrelli (Osmin), Richard Spuler (Pasha Selim)
Houston Grand Opera Orchestra and Chorus, William Lacey (conductor). Richard Bado (chorus master)
Allen Moyer (set designer), Anna R. Oliver (costumes), Paul Palazzo (lighting designer) James Robinson (stage director)

Die Entführung aus dem Serail presents peculiar challenges --- it is early Mozart with a weird dramatic setting in Turkey, and it has a huge aria for the soprano. It is not very profound but it will demand profundity from its performers.

It comes at the beginning of the last decade of Mozart’s short life – a decade that would end operatically with The Magic Flute – an opera that many look to Entführung as a sort of rough draft for the later work. Also, The Magic Flute is the work that Houston Grand Opera will begin to present on Friday, Jan. 25, in repertory with Die Entführung.

Die Entführung, or Abduction, is one of the earliest works in the Mozart operatic canon, and strictly speaking, it is not even an opera – but a Singspiel, “a play with songs.” Like The Magic Flute, it is a hybrid stage work, one that needs strong singers and capable actors to pull this off, and a conductor to hold tight reins on the musical procession.

As well, the staging of the drama raises issues. Hardly anyone places it in the time period that Mozart and his librettist, Gottlieb Stephanie, intended: the mid-1500, about the time of the Ottoman Turks’ Siege of Vienna. What made sense for an Austrian of their times makes little sense today – and therefore, Abduction is always moved forward to the 20th century. In this production, it is the 1920s, and we are on the fabled Orient Express train route between Istanbul and Paris.

The set design showed splendidly outfitted compartments in two separate railway cars, with connecting doorways. Not only was this visually very stimulating, especially when a rolling proscenium left to right simulated motion on the train, but it also allowed separating the singers in different groups as the dramatic situations required.

James Robinson’s stage direction followed the pattern of a 1920’s cinematic farce. The singers were engaged with some kind of stage business throughout, yet this never appeared busy or nervous. The misfires were the times the singers tried to smoke cigarettes while singing. This was a clever stage trick once or twice, but more times than that, it became distracting.

Abduction is best known for its cabaletta, Martern aller Arten, for the soprano. This is one of the great bravura showstoppers in all of opera, and perhaps the longest. What is forgotten is that the soprano has another aria to sing immediately before this, Traurigkeit, and just a few minutes to catch her breath before she goes from one aria to the other. Tamara Wilson, as Konstanze, stepped in for the ailing Pamela Armstrong. An alumna of the Houston Opera Studio, Wilson slipped seamlessly into the stage fabric of this production. Her Martern aller Arten was sung and thrown off with aplomb, and with all the extra stage business with the coats and shawls she had to try on. Two months ago, Wilson had sung Amelia in Un Ballo in Maschera to much acclaim. She is an operatic star in her ascendancy.

But musically overall, Abduction is an ensemble piece, with the principals having each at least two songs of their own. All singers here were strong. And together they were marvelous, notably in the quartet that ends Act II, one of Mozart’s great operatic ensembles.

The focus is on the separated lovers, Belmonte and Konstanze, but the servant-class couple, Pedrillo and Blonde, gets just as much attention. Mozart is an equal-opportunity composer.

As Belmonte, Paul Groves has a large, lyrical voice in the Irish tenor style, with a technique that would allow him to walk across the stage while singing a long piano tone. It is a beautiful voice. As the servant girl Blonde, Heidi Stober, has a marvelous soubrette and a winning comedic style.

But the scene stealer is Nicholas Phan as Pedrillo, another Houston Opera Studio alumnus. Phan is the delight of this production. He is a natural theatrical animal – poised, lithe, acrobatic, and supremely musical in attuning the motion of his movements to the measure of the music. Of comic opera, he appears to the manner born, with a light tenor voice inflected with subtle expression. Phan also speaks the German dialogue with the clearest diction of any of the singers.

The veteran here is Andrea Silvestrelli as Osmin, the basso, who was singing with a cold. A bear of a man, with cannon of a voice, he was tonally wonderful, if muffled because of his cold. Osmin is the crazy character in this piece, and it was hard to find anything wanting here, despite his indisposition.

In the speaking role of the Pasha Selim, Richard Spuler seems more like Noel Coward than the nasty Turkish head of a harem. Spuler is the German language coach for the cast and he perhaps does his work better behind the scenes.

In the pit, this very youthful Entführung was led by William Lacey. A sensitive, very controlled performance, with tight rhythmic singing and some gorgeous harmonics that made Mozart sound fresh.

This production is a reprise of 2002, when Houston Grand Opera mounted this in the smaller Cullen Theater, where a work like Abduction is better heard. The larger Brown Theater does seem to swallow up this stage production, and the acoustics in the Cullen are much more intimate for this type of work. Offering this in the larger Brown Theater seems a way for more patrons to see the opera but still, it is better seen in the smaller Cullen Theater, built to display works like this.

In the continuing debate of opera being amplified like Broadway, I offer this addendum:

There was this notice in the program, not very predominant. Houston Grand Opera under David Gockley was a company that amplified opera singers. Now under the new general director Anthony Freud, one will find this notice in the opera program:

It is the strict policy of Houston Grand Opera that the excellent natural acoustics of the Wortham Center’s two theaters are relied upon to convey sound from the stage and pit. Electronic sound enhancement is used only with spoken dialog (The Merry Widow), in musicals (A Little Night Music), in sound effects (thunder), and at the composer’s discretion (Nixon in China and The Little Prince.) Visible microphones are positioned to record performances for future radio broadcasts.

Those broadcasts will be heard later on National Public Radio’s World of Opera.

Gary N. Reese



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