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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Opera Review: The Belmonte Stakes

The Met mounts Die Entführung aus dem Serail.
I've got a tenor on my shoulder: Hans-Peter König (left) clowns as Osmin as
Pedrillo (Brenton Ryan) tries to sneak past in a scene from Die Entführung aus dem Serail.
Photo by Marty Sohl © 2016 The Metropolitan Opera.
The James Levine era is ending at the Met. In fact, the company's current revival of Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail is the last production that Mr. Levine will lead as music director before he adds "emeritus" to that title and makes way for a new conductor to take over his job. So it was an especially warm and appreciative audience that greeted him Tuesday nigh. It's fitting that Entführung is his last big show, it is an opera that he restored to the company's repertory after a 30-year absence, way back in 1979.

Mozart's music demands precise singing and this is an opera where all five solo parts are challenging and cruelly exposed. The highest hurdles were faced by soprano Albina Shagimuratova as Konstanze, who faced down the challenge of a pair of back-to-back arias in Act II that are not only long and difficult but written in different styles as well. She produced a tragic focus in "Traurigkeit" before letting loose the fireworks display of "Marten aller Arten", in which she openly defies the romantic intentions of her captor the Pasha Selim.

Out to rescue his beloved is the Spanish nobleman Belmonte, sung here by up-and-coming tenor Paul Appleby. Mr. Appleby got off to a pallid start but his performance kicked into gear in the comic duet with Hans-Peter König's oafish Osmin. In the third act, Mr. Appleby struggled with some of the pitch values in the heavily ornamented aria that opened that act, but was superb in his long love duet with Ms. Shagimuratova, a duet sung once the lovers are foiled in their attempt to escape the seraglio.

As Osmin, Mr. König quickly established himself as a comic foil to the lovers and the successor in this role to singers like Kurt Moll and Matti Salminen. Indeed, this is the first great basso role in the German repertory, running a gamut of emotions from a misguided love for the maid Blondchen (Kathleen Kim) to fury as his plans to hang, flay and bastinado the Westerners are foiled in the final scene. Mr. König's performance was the living, beating heart of this opera, the kind of virtuoso bass singing that looks easy but is incredibly challenging to do well. And yes, he hit his low D, perched on the prompter's box. Also, as a German singer, his cut-down spoken dialogue was a pleasure to hear.

Mozart cast his minor pair of lovers as another tenor-soprano pair. Here, Brenton Ryan  (in his Met debut) gave a breakout performances as Pedrillo, a kind of Figaro-like servant who lacks that character's wit. He was a good comic pairing with Mr. König and sang a lovely serenade in the third act, a number where the joke is that it keeps going as the lovers are trying to escape. As Blondchen, Kathleen Kim's diminutive stature was played for laughs against the huge Mr. König, and her Act II aria defying the Turkish overseer was a highlight of the entire evening, Finally,  Matthias von Stegmann was a noble presence as the Pasha Selim, whose clemency is the only thing saving the lovers in this opera. This is a spoken role.

Following a slam-bang overture, James Levine led a bubbling account of this score, conducting with a vigor that has not been seen this season. Maybe the decision to finally retire took the brakes off, but the wheelchair-bound conductor has not sounded better this season. He gave room for his singers to breathe and worked closely with them through the difficult arias, mouthing words as he gestured and urged them forward. This is the kind of Mozart that may be missed at the Met in years to come. 

John Dexter's abstract production is a product of its time, with a backdrop of painted minarets and onion domes suggesting this work's Turkish setting. The show reminded one of how effective this old style of production can be, with a mix of three-dimensional acting areas and 2-D trompe l'oeil trees and bushes in the back. The costumes are just as conservative: the Turkish overseer Osmin prowls in a turban and orange balloon pants, and the quartet trying to escape from the titular seraglio look like Westerners who took a wrong turn at the Bosporous. 

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