The title of Mozart’s 1782 opera is, of course, something of a misnomer. No-one is to be stolen away from a harem – more accurately the plot revolves around the planned rescue of Constanze from a captivity that is far from uncomfortable, and in the event even this degree of action proves unnecessary. But descriptions are slippery things, and I’m not unusual when I hover between calling Seraglio an opera (which the complexity of the music certainly suggests) and a Singspiel, that hybrid German music-play with a high percentage of spoken dialogue, which was the genre within which Mozart and his librettist Stephanie developed the work. However, when the publicity for this new production from Opera North described it instead as a “glorious vaudeville” it might have set alarm bells ringing. Yes, it’s got a very silly plot involving disguises, stratagems and designing servants which provides the opportunity for some broad, humorous characterisation. However it also has exquisitely lyrical passages, a central motif concerning the nature of love and decency and an underlying sadness that colours its happy ending.
Still, I can see how one might play up the vaudeville elements in it to produce a comedy of errors. There’s lots of opportunity for physical horse-play around the bullish head servant Osmin with his inappropriate attraction to captured maidservant Blonde and his arrogant attitude to the hero Belmonte, and enough characters being found in the wrong place at the wrong time (and on occasion in the wrong costume) to make a slick entertainment that wouldn’t jar against Mozart’s music. I can’t, however, see that this was the aim and it certainly wasn’t the achievement. In a desperately muddled (and muddling) production, the action was translated to a modern setting that wanted both to be realistic (the uninspiring appurtenances of what looked like a hotel lobby standing in for the entrance of the Pasha’s palace) and also symbolic. Little models of high-tech buildings were scattered around to demonstrate the wealth of the country – but they were too small to make much impact and generated an anxiety (unforgiveable in the theatre) that they were going to get knocked over. There was a tricksy bit of projection to no great purpose – indeed, that sums up the problems here. Odd visual elements were introduced, so far as one could see, just to surprise, as though the designer thought we (and Mozart) needed disorienting. Why else did we have a giant panda and two superheroes onstage for the final act?
Elsewhere, though, the design elements obviously did make a point, so you were never sure what sort of visual language was being employed. Spanish nobleman Belmonte (Allan Clayton, in excellent voice even when hampered by a silly set-up) turns up at the Pasha’s palace in a stage version of Turkish costume, standing out like a sore thumb amongst the modern dress of the locals. He’s better placed to pass himself off as a visiting architect (in order to infiltrate the seraglio where his lost love Constanze is kept ) by simply wearing western clothes. This sort of translation into modern terms of reference seemed thoroughly thought through, while others looked annoyingly random. Generally there was an untidy fussiness about the production, a clunky impression of too much stage-business not quite running smoothly and of ideas thrown into the mix without being developed.
Mercifully the musical side of things held its own and at points simply soared above the distractions offered. Kate Valentine brought the necessary gravitas to Constanze (and yes, I know that’s not the sort of quality you might expect, but the role shows someone who isn’t a spit off being a tragic heroine, and she does have to carry all the emotional weight of a woman torn between two possibilities and can no longer make a wholly comfortable choice.) Martin Hyder made this the more convincing by portraying Pasha Selim as an entirely viable romantic option whose maturity makes Belmonte seem callow. I was unconvinced by the additional layer of tangled emotions whereby the Pasha’s (female) mute and narrator of the piece also cherished a hopeless love for her master. Like so much else in the production, this over-egged the mixture. Whether it’s an opera or a singspiel, there’s so much going on in the music, especially sung and played as it was on Tuesday, that an effective staging needs to complement it rather than provide distractions.