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The Clemency of Selim Pasha

New York
Metropolitan Opera House
04/26/2008 -  and April 30, May 3, 7
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Die Entführung aus dem Serail (“The Abduction from the Seraglio”)
Diana Damrau (Konstanze), Aleksandra Kurzak (Blondchen), Matthew Polenzani (Belmonte), Steve Davislim (Pedrillo), Kristinn Sigmundsson (Osmin), Matthias von Stegmann (Pasha Selim)
Metropolitan Opera Chorus, Donald Palumbo (Director), Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, David Robertson (Conductor)
John Dexter (Production), Jocelyn Herbert (Set & Costume Designer), Gil Wechsler (Lighting Designer), Max Charrruer (Stage Director)

When Mozart’s Entführung aus dem Serail opened last night, there were no surprises on the stage, since this was the same John Dexter setting which has appeared for the past dozen-odd years. The curtain was a gigantic hat of an Ottoman pasha, under the latticework of a Muslim mosque. Dominating each scene was a the silhouette of a Turkish mosque cupola. The sky was a perfect blue, there was plenty of space between each stylized building, and only a few objects—a red fence which could have come from Madame Butterfly—interrupted the ideal Middle Eastern Ottoman décor.

Nor did the new voices have any real problems. They were each sufficient, some were brilliant, some not quite making Mozart’s ideal of character and emotion. The orchestra was under the always competent David Robertson, and the lighting gave out a desert-air clarity.

So what were the problems with this Mozart opera? The most dominant was nobody knew what to do with all that space. The full chorus of male and female Janissaries in Act One was the only time when the stage seemed occupied. Otherwise, two or three characters had to spread out over the stage to listen to each other. When Blondchen sings to Osmin her Durch Zärtlichkeit, it takes a lot of business for Osmin to climb around the stage. When Konstanze, in the same act, complains about her problems to Blondchen, they appear on opposite ends of a very long stage.

Perhaps most embarrassing is Konstance’s grand aria—almost a concert-piece in itself—Martern aller Arten—our Pasha has absolutely nothing to do but walk from one side of the stage to another. The awkwardness was as apparent as Diana Damrau’s singing was glorious.

Another problem was that with a few exceptions, nobody seemed to be having a particularly good time. Yes, Aleksandra Kurzak, as Blondchen, did have the wonderful coquette’s role, and in giving her rules of etiquette to Osmin, it seemed a parody of Deborah Kerr in King And I. Osmin , as played by Kristinn Sigmundsson, has the easiest part for fun, as Mozart’s idea of Caliban, the big, beefy, stupid and sometimes dangerous guardian of the palace. The fun fortunately masked Mr. Sigmundsson’s not quite sure grasp of the lowest notes (he is a good bass, not really a basso profundo) .

But none of the others really came into the spirit of the offering. Matthew Polenzani has the richest tenor one expects, and in his last act duet with Konstanze, one heard a real emotional turn. But he was decidedly wooden in his acting. The same for the non-singing actor who played the Pasha. The utterances were oh…so…slow, so soft. The physical mannerisms were perhaps meant to be stately (after all, it wouldn’t be politically correct to show a Muslim Sultan as anything but respectable) but were simply stilted.

Fortunately, this production had some fine voices. Mr. Polenzani was full-voiced in two arias: his first, O wie ängstlich and his other love song in the third act, Ich baue ganz. Steve Davislim as Pedrillo held back a bit on his so-called roguishness, but he also had a fine tenor. Ms. Kurzak was more than sweet: she had the edge which gives character to Blondchen.

Finally, the star of the show, Diana Damrau, in her first coloratura aria was less than smooth, but she regained all her brilliant soprano for the great Martern aller Arten.

Still, this was less theatre than good concert arias in an exotic setting. Granted, Abduction has neither the burlesque nor the tragedy for important movements, and it must be difficult for any director to make the opera move on such a large stage. Thus, the enjoyment was somehow constricted, and for all their talents, the singers seemed less exhilarated than intimidated by the story.

Harry Rolnick



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