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Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Recordings Review: A Breakout Performance

Yannick Nézet-Séguin leads Die Entführung aus dem Serail.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Uncaged: new Met maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin leads Mozart's
Die Entführung aus dem Serail.
The eyes of the opera world are currently on Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the fiery Quebecois conductor who, just last week was announced as the successor to James Levine at the Metropolitan Opera. So perhaps it is fitting that the recording under consideration this week is the third in his ongoing cycle of "major" Mozart operas for Deutsche Grammophon made in association with the Baden-Baden Festival. It is a much-needed new recording of Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail with a starry cast and a new orchestral collaborator: the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. This two-CD set, released in 2015 fills a need. (The fourth, Le Nozze di Figaro, will be released July 8 of this year.)

Readers may remember that the opera company ended its 2015-16 season with Entführung, and the opera became Mr. Levine's bow-out as that company's  music director after forty years.  From the first chords of the overture, Mr. Nézet-Séguin proves his own man in this music, striking a balance between the contrasting styles Mozart used in this, his first opera written for the stage of the Vienna Court Opera. Throughout, the CME is caught in close detail--it is even possible to hear the woodwind players breathing in the quietest moments. The playing (using modern instriuments) is propulsive without rushing the singers along too fast, and all the sparkling details of this music are revealed in vivid color.

Mozart timed the 1782 premiere of Entführung to coincide  his move to Vienna and his career shift from court composer to freelance musician. Looking to impress, he threw everything he knew (at age 25, anyway) into the score. There are showpieces for most of the singers, a surfeit of Turkish "bim-bom" rhythms and even some gorgeous slow music for those moments when the comedy takes a breather from its madcap whirl. And it is to this conductor's credit that he remembers that Entführung is at heart a knockabout comedy, and not an exercise in the dry musicology of the German singspiel. Over three brisk acts, the action moves forward, but the beauty and detail of writing for voices, woodwinds and strings is captured in full.

The star here is Diana Damrau, starring in her third recording in this series. The German soprano is a fiery and what's more, idiomatic Konstanze, soaring above the stave but keeping the character's core intact. Although her tone is sometimes over-bright (which might be blamed on a close microphone) it never turns shrill, rather converting the listener through the sheer virtuosity of her performance in showpiece arias like the slow "Traurigkeit" and its sort-of cabaletta "Marschen aller Marten." This is some of Mozart's most punishing vocal writing, and she rises admirably to the occasion. Hearing her vocal line in the latter aria duel with the oboe and flute is a thrill, and a stern reminder of just how bloody difficult this music is to sing.

The next standout is Franz-Josef Selig, who sang Osmin in the aforementioned Met revival last month. He takes his place among the great basses with this portrayal of the whip-cracking harem overseer, one of the greatest comic roles ever written for the basso profondo voice. Fresh, sympathetic and funny (even in his outbursts of rage and threats of violence against the protagonists) he makes a meal of this meaty role. He sings his slow passages with great control and a pearly, round tone that eludes most villainous basses, making Osmin a sympathetic figure from his entrance. And he never forgets to play the big guy as a frustrated, would-be lover with an unfortunate belligerent streak. In the German dialogue, he is unsurpassed.

In the secondary role of Blonde, soprano Anna Prohaska impresses just as much. Indeed, she brings more warmth than usual to this ungrateful part, which is often given to singers more noted for agility than tone. The Act II "Durch Zärtlichkeit Und Schmeicheln", with its murderer's row of high E's above the stave, sounds almost effortless with every note beautifully sung. (This alone makes this set recommendable, as other fine recordings of this operas have been sunk by a shrill soprano in this part.)

Rolando Villazon's self-reinvention as a Mozart tenor continues here as he takes on Belmonte's difficult music. The voice does not lie easily for this material, but the singer makes a heroic effort to sound ardent. The only let-down is the light-weight Pedrillo of Paul Schweinster, but at least he is strong in the character's many duets. The bass Thomas Quasthoff comes out of retirement for the all-spoken part of Pasha Selim. In the final scene, the humanity of Konstanze's captor allows the lovers to depart in a final chorus that bursts from the speakers in a celebratory storm of orchestral fireworks. This is Mr. Nézet-Séguin and Mozart at their most buoyant.

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