The Abduction From the Seraglio poses a problem for any opera company. There it is, stuffed with some of Mozart’s most appealing operatic music, occasional profound romantic and heroic arias, notably ‘Martern aller Arten’ with its imposing orchestral introduction, amid delightfully fresh ensembles, buffo set pieces and strophic vaudevilles. Yet its rather ramshackle, farcical plot sits uncomfortably in today’s politically sensitive society.
The Pasha Selim keeps Constanze, a Western noblewoman, prisoner in his seraglio. Similarly imprisoned are her English maid, Blonde, and Pedrillo, the servant of Constanze’s fiancé, the Spanish nobleman Belmonte, who arrives to rescue them. The Pasha ultimately behaves nobly, but Osmin, the overseer of the harem, once a figure of fun, is now seen as a crudely stereotypical Oriental villain.
So The Seraglio gets far fewer productions than its music deserves – and Opera North, in its new production, blurs the East-West divide and creates a new story-line (by director/set designer Tim Hopkins and Nicholas Ridout) that shifts focus more towards the Pasha, humanises Osmin to an extent and makes the relationships between Eastern men and Western women more reciprocal.
As a result the opera (or, rather, Singspiel) becomes longer and slower and gains pretentious speeches, stiff dialogue and good visual gags in roughly equal numbers – and the dialogue is sometimes at odds with Amanda Holden’s very singable translation of the lyrics. Gideon Davey’s attractive costumes find ingenious ways of merging the two worlds, but the inventive production is very much designer’s theatre: quirky visual features of indeterminate intent and a tendency to deploy characters like figures in a De Chirico townscape. Hopkins and Ridout add the Pasha’s extraordinarily voluble Mute as narrator, Nadia Morgan deadpanning effectively without justifying the character’s existence.
Fortunately, the music always returns, and with it the smiles. Despite his occasional liking for lingering tempos, Rory Macdonald conducts an unfussy account of the score by an orchestra in its customary fine form, with vernal sounds from the woodwind and the percussion merrily clattering through the “Turkish” music.
The youth of all four lovers helps greatly in blending the voices in ensembles like the beautifully balanced quartet finale to Act 2. On her first entry the creamy soprano of Kate Valentine (Constanze) promises much, but a little more vocal flexibility would be welcome and she is more weighed down than most by the dialogue. Not so the excellent Allan Clayton (Belmonte) whose fine lyric tenor complements an effective characterisation combining ardour with bemusement. Elena Xanthoudakis, making an auspicious Opera North debut as a spirited Blonde, and Nicholas Sharratt, a neat and precise Pedrillo, are admirable as the below-stairs couple.
Unfortunately, the attempt to balance East and West makes life hard for the two “Turkish” characters. Martin Hyder’s Selim is deprived of the exoticism of the character without being given any speakable dialogue to compensate. Clive Bayley is as secure and vocally characterful an Osmin as one could wish, but his transformation into a US-style security chief stifles the buffo bravura of his performance.
An incidental pleasure was the number of teenagers in the audience, the first of 700 young people to see the opera under the Opus 1 scheme. Their evident delight in the proceedings comes near to justifying what seems to the older generation like wilful tinkering.