In 1782, Mozart premiered The Abduction from the Seraglio, a production that would be hugely successful even though he didn’t see profits from it. It would also lead to one of the biggest unsubstantiated rumours in operatic history of Emperor Joseph II complaining that there were “monstrous many notes” in the opera, a remark which Mozart swiftly replied with, “Exactly as many as are necessary, Your Majesty.”
Opera Atelier, in hosting the production on their second night of Oct. 27, 2013, seems to have either heard about the exchange and dismissed, or not thought it important at all. Instead, Co-Directors Marshall Pynkoski and Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg (who also choreographs the ballet before jumping in to be part of it herself) have produced Abduction with their trademark touch of youth, vitality, comedic energy and lavish stage designs. While money is certainly not limitless, the extravagance of the production, thanks to designer Gerard Gauci’s deft and clever touch, looks as though money was no expense. It may not have the exact realism of the Arab world that a production set in Turkey would inherently have, but that’s not of top concern in Mozart’s commedia dell’arte, an opera that focuses instead on raunchy humour and low-brow entertainment, but with a sophisticated twist.
With an opera that breaks away from the traditional mould of serious, heavy and dark, Abduction instead relies on its characters keeping it rooted in relevance, with modern appliques needed to travel back in time. For instance, Konstanze (soprano Ambur Braid) wears glasses, Pedrillo (tenor Adam Fisher) says things like, “Hey, buddy!”, and the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, grandly led by David Fallis, uses contemporary music accoutrements on period pieces. It all combines to make an opera that is relatable, and Opera Atelier a people’s company.
Even the story has a timeless quality to it, in spite of the period set design anchoring centuries-old concepts like Pashas and harems. The Western world might not think abductions and forced relationships are the norm as was in the Arab world (or at least, perceived through Western eyes), but we see enough of it in arranged marriages in the East and rape culture in the West to understand that being taken against your will and having to give yourself over to another, against your wishes, isn’t as rare as we’d like to think it is.
To that effect, Pasha Selim (bass-baritone Curtis Sullivan) adds depth and humanity by making a choice not often seen in men of power. Sullivan almost fills the role effectively, well presenting the Pasha’s strength and machismo, but coming up a bit short at the time of his choice. His about face is a little startling not because it’s unimaginable that someone of his character and stature could behave that way, but because there isn’t as smooth a transition as could be.
Belmonte (tenor Lawrence Williford) is another character who seems to be playing a role instead of inhabiting it. The audience never quite got a sense of his status as a Spanish nobleman as Williford, despite singing cleanly and strongly, couldn’t convey his position with enough authority, power and gravitas. A nobleman who’s the hero of an opera tends to inhabit these qualities innately, having been born with them, but Williford never commanded the stage with a powerful presence. His chemistry with Konstanze was a little thin, too, but not for Braid’s lack of effort. She was superb, alternating between heartsick longing and decisive femininity, but Williford just didn’t give as good as he received.
However, the other four characters, Pedrillo, Blonde (soprano Carla Huhtanen), Konstanze, and the Pasha’s guard, Osmin (bass Gustav Andreassen) all excelled enough that the opera was still a delightful smash. Braid, having been given some of opera’s more challenging arias, performed just as, if not more so, strongly than her role as the Queen of the Night in last season’s The Magic Flute. Her colleague from last season, Huhtanen, also came alive as Pedrillo’s lover, a woman both sprightly and serious as Blonde, singing her role with balanced passion and restraint. Fisher, as Pedrillo, spoke his lines a little too comically in this Singspiel opera, but as he sang and danced and leapt across the stage, all that was forgotten. And playing the foil to the comedy was Andreassen, delightfully slimy, smarmy, intimidating, and bristling. As his bassy voice rang out in the Elgin Theatre, a sense of dread came over the audience, ameliorated slightly with the comic occurrences happening behind his back.
For no matter how serious life may be, we all need a bit of lightness and comedy to keep everything in perspective.
Opera Atelier’s production of Abduction from the Seraglio runs until Nov. 2, 2013 and tickets can be bought on the Opera Atelier website.