Sunday, February 14, 2021

DIE ENTFÜHRUNG AUS DEM SERAIL (Wiener Staatsoper)****

 

By Sophie

Link: https://play.wiener-staatsoper.at/event/16483d02-b762-475b-9871-27552e6373f5/play

Available until: Probably until the evening of 15th February. There might also be future broadcasts.

Die Entführung aus dem Serail wasn’t strictly my first opera. That was Lulu and I think if you can sit through something through that strange and still want to come back for more, you probably are going to end up being an opera fan. But finding the music shop next to English National Opera’s Coliseum and buying the wonderful recording of Die Entführung by William Christie and Les Arts Florissants probably did help a lot in the matter of ensuring I went back the following week.

Something which is frequently mentioned about Die Entführung is that the spoken dialogue is sometimes a challenge for singers and that it is therefore sometimes produced with actors performing the dialogues and singers performing the arias, duets, ensembles and very occasional recitatives. The aforementioned Les Arts Florissants production did have an actor and a singer sharing the role of Blonde (pronounced ‘Blonda’, in case you’re wondering… librettist Gottlieb Stephanie being apparently under the impression that this was a common name for women in England), but as the recording dates were several months apart, this could have been a scheduling issue.

It makes sense that trained opera singers might be uncomfortable with spoken dialogue, but there are quite a few operas with spoken dialogue, such as Die Zauberflöte and Carmen (both much more commonly performed than Die Entführung), the aforementioned Lulu and various operettas, yet it is apparently never an issue for singers in these operas to perform the spoken dialogue in addition to the music. I have two DVDs and about six CDs of Die Entführung and I think I’ve seen it twice, but Wiener Staatsoper is the first production I have known to use both actors and singers.

I was naturally very curious to know how this was done – and, if possible, why it was done. My vague impression was that the singers and actors would either swap places at appropriate points in the opera (problematic, as there are a few instances of spoken dialogue mid-song) or that the singers would stand at the side or back of the stage and sing while their counterparts acted out what was being sung.

Neither surmise was correct. Instead, in Hans Neuenfels’ staging, the actor and singer are dressed identically, with identical distinctive wigs and hats. They usually appear onstage together, like identical twins. Sometimes one gives encouragement to the other; sometimes they are locked in combat, the singer wanting to do one thing while the actor wants entirely the opposite. The idea was presumably not inspired by the idea that the spoken dialogue might be a challenge for the singer – the singer also performs some of the spoken dialogue, resulting in the impression of the characters’ arguing with themselves.

It could be seen as a sort of ‘heart v head’ situation, which is certainly interesting, but slightly bewildering. While there are many operas in which characters have a big decision to make, Die Entführung is an opera where characters almost consistently either follow their head or their heart. The lovers follow their heart and put love first, even at the potential cost of their personal safety. While Osmin isn’t overly happy that Blonde refuses to perform her harem ‘duties’ for him, her refusal does become something of an insurmountable obstacle. This is not to say that Osmin behaves well at all times – he doesn’t – but it is very refreshing that he knows the meaning of the word ‘no’, even if he really doesn’t like it.

The one character who faces a real head and heart battle, Pasha Selim, is the only character who is played by just one performer. This role is entirely a spoken role so no singer is needed. At the end of this production, Christian Nickel’s Pasha Selim says (and this is not in the libretto) that as he can’t sing, he’ll read a poem. So he does, beautifully, but incongruously, presumably to replace the aria that wasn’t written for him. Not enough notes, Mozart.

So the reason for the identical twins remains obscure, but does it add something to the story? It’s certainly interesting. There’s certainly no reason why they shouldn’t all be identical twins, though they do seem less alone and vulnerable when there are two of them. Two Konstanzes could probably take Selim, if not in quite the way he wants. It might be quite confusing to people who aren’t familiar with the opera, but I liked it and it’s good to try new and strange things when presenting an opera which most people will have other opportunities to see performed conventionally.

Antonello Manacorda’s conducting brings out the virtuosic nature of parts of the score. Daniel Behle sings sweetly as Belmonte, though neither he nor actor Christian Natter make the most heroic leading man. Lisette Oropesa rises to the vocal demands – and the top Ds – of Konstanze’s music and she and Emanuela von Frankenberg cut dignified, elegant figures. Singer Michael Laurenz and Ludwig Blochberger give the opera some humour as Pedrillo, and there is something rather terrifying about both Blondes, singer Regula Mühlemann and actor Stella Roberts. You don’t want to mess with either of them – so I can quite see why Osmin didn’t. Singer Goran Jurić and actor Andreas Grötzinger are not quite ridiculous as Osmin, with Goran strong at the bottom of the bass range.

It’s an enjoyable production, well-sung and well-acted, and I certainly don’t dislike fictional identical twins. I wouldn’t have written my university dissertation on that very subject if I disliked them. But whether they have a place in this particular opera does seem open to question.

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