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Monday, August 15, 2016

Superconductor Audio Guide: Die Entführung aus dem Serail

Mozart's singspiel put German opera on the map.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The grappling hook: essential equipment for any staging of Die Entführung aus dem Serail.
In 1781, the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Joseph II wanted to promote singspiel (German opera with spoken dialogue instead of recitative) as an alternative to the Italian opera that dominated the stage in the 18th century. He decreed the founding of the Nationalsingspiel, a company dedicated to performance of Gernab opera. Its first and most enduring production was Mozart's 1782 opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail ("The Abduction from the Seraglio.") It is the earliest of the composer's German operas to hold a continued place in the standard international repertory, and the oldest German opera that is regularly heard today.

The libretto of this story of a rescue from a Turkish harem was itself "abducted" (that is: plagiarized) by librettist Gottlieb Stephanie from an earlier work by Christoph Friedrich Bretzner. The hero is Belmonte, a Spanish prince, accompanied by his loyal servant Pedrillo (both tenors.) Their (repeated) efforts to rescue the beautiful Konstanze and her maid Blonde from the clutches of Pasha Selim and his burly overseer Osmin form the opera's plot. Ultimately, the lovers are captured but are sent home by the Pasha in a moment of diplomacy and clement behavior.

The 25-year-old Mozart infused the score with fizzing melodies and exuberant allegros, with clashes of bass drum and cymbal meant to recall the work's Turkish setting. He also started experimenting with moving the action of the opera forward with accompanied exchanges between the characters cast as duets and trios. However, as this is a singspiel, there is spoken German dialogue between the sung numbers, and it should also be noted that the role of Pasha Selim is an entirely spoken part.

He also posed stern tests for his singers, particulary the two sopranos playing Blonde and Konstanze. The former has the high-flying "Durch Zärtlichkeit und Schmeicheln" where she rejects Osmin's advances, defending her virtue with a display of fiery high Es. Konstanze's big number is actually a long recitative followed two back-to-back arias. The slower "Traurigkeit" is technically difficult, but the even more demanding "Marten aller Arten" demands spectacular control over the voice. Itssheer difficulty makes casting this role (and staging this opera) difficult.

Although the quartet of lovers are stock characters, it is with the villainous Osmin that Mozart and Stephanie created this opera's most enduring figure. This is one of the earliest central roles for a deep bass, who has lovely melodies to sing along with his threats and comic blustering. Osmin is the inspiration for every operatic bass role that followed, from Rocco in Beethoven's Fidelio to Ochs in Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier.

There are a number of excellent recordings of Die Entführung aus dem Serail available. Here are five very different takes on the same opera.

Chorus and Orchestra of the Bavarian State Opera cond, Eugen Jochum (Deutsche Grammophon, 1965)
The reason to hear this recording is Fritz Wunderlich, the brilliant high tenor who makes the difficult role of Belmonte sound relatively easy. German songbird Erika Köth's piercing soprano is not to everyone's taste, although she certainly hits the notes required. Kurt Böhme is a stalwart Osmin. Eugen Jochum conducts this score naturally and effortlessly. An old-school favorite.

Vienna Philharmonic cond. Sir Georg Solti (Decca, 1985)
This glossy, slick production features the Vienna Philharmonic, driven hard by the relentless baton of Georg Solti. Edita Gruberova are a starry pair of coloratura singers as Konstanze and Blonde. Gösta Windbergh is an especially callow Belmonte, and Heinz Zednik gets to do something other than snarl his way through character tenor parts as Pedrillo. Martti Talvela is a tremendous and very funny Osmin. The only drawback, a digital production with a sheen of echo on the voices that gets distracting after a while.

English Baroque Soloists cond. John Eliot Gardiner (DG Archiv, 1993)
There are a few recordings of this opera using 18th century instruments, and this is the one you're most likely to find on the shelf. The standouts here are Luba Orgonášová as Konstanze and Stanford Olsen as Belmonte, who make their arias and scenes together a series of thrilling high-wire feats. John Eliot Gardiner's period orchestra acts as their safety net, with their taut playing keeping the action moving forward. Cornelius Hauptmann is not a star bass, but he plays Osmin well. The conducting and overall atmosphere is engaging.

Chamber Orchestra of Europe cond. Yannick Nézet-Séguin (Deutsche Grammophon 2015)
This installment of Yannick Nézet-Séguin's Mozart cycle has terrific conducting, one of Europe's best chamber-sized orchestras and top-notch casting in the female roles. Diana Damrau is a fiery and idiomatic Konstanze. Rolando Villazon's voice does not lie easily for Belmonte. Paul Schweinster is a light-weight Pedrillo. Franz-Josef Selig is a great Osmin with comic timing and a pearly, round tone and temperament that suits the role. The bass Thomas Quasthoff comes out of retirement for the all-spoken part of Pasha Selim, a nice bit of luxury casting.

Akademie für alte Musik Berlin cond. Rene Jacobs (harmonia mundi, 2015)
The last of Rene Jacobs' epic project of recording all of Mozart's mature operas, this account from Berlin features a fine and idiomatic cast of singers and absolutely no cuts in the spoken dialogue. (This may not be to everyone's taste listening at home.) Maximillian Schmitt and Julien Prégardien, a fine pair of tenors are Belmonte and Pedrillo, respectively. Robin Johanssen soars through "Marten aller arten," and Mari Eriksmoen is a pert and funny Blonde. Finally, bass Dimitry Ivashchenko is a firm Osmin with a little more villainy than usual.
Watch the final scene of Die Entführung aus dem Serail 
as staged by Twyla Tharp in the Milos Forman film Amadeus. 
Footage © 1984 The Saul Zaentz Company. 
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.