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Die Entführung aus dem Serail

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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Garsington Opera

While Garsington's production of Maometto secondo makes no attempt to deal with the delicate issue of how foreigners, especially Muslims, are presented onstage, Daniel Slater's Die Entführung aus dem Serail turns somersaults to avoid any reference to Mozart's original setting of a Turkish harem.

Transposing the action to a contemporary world of Russian oligarchs, and the dark dealings behind international football, leads to mixed results. There's something ingenious about both Slater's realisation of Mozart's comic tale, which requires significant re-writing of the spoken dialogue, and the tricksy sets that Francis O'Connor gives him but it's still not wholly successful.

The parallels largely work – Turkish potentate as ruthless mafia man, dimwit sidekick as sunshaded heavy, cheeky servant Pedrillo as cockney sports reporter and the romantic lead Belmonte a hapless American oil heir – but there's a fair amount of shoehorning needed. The Villa Seraglio becomes an all mod-cons mansion, inaccessible to the outside world, with every trapping of the mega-rich lifestyle.

It certainly succeeds in sidestepping the portrayal of Muslims as kidnappers of Western women, who resort to torture and execution when the abductees get uppity (which of course they do because good old democratic freedom is at stake). If such behaviour seems too stereotypical for the generic Eastern types that Mozart and his librettists envisaged, nouveau riche Russian business men and their accomplices look a safer target for ridicule.

Slater's re-working teems with ideas; it's the execution (that word again) that causes problems. It's always an issue with Singspiel that opera singers don't adapt easily to quick-witted knockabout comedy and here they require a fleet-footedness and ability to put across some pretty cheesy jokes that often falls flat. Pantomime, which this represents most of the time, isn't easy for the most skilled actor and is even more of a problem for singers, as we see at every revival of Die Zauberflöte.

Languages veer all over the place, the singing of course in German but the dialogue switching, for reasons not altogether obvious, between German, English and Spanish (in the original Belmonte is Spanish and Blonde English, so maybe there's some precedent even if it all gets mixed up here).

While the onstage shenanigans are hit and miss, there's good work in the pit, with William Lacey conducting Mozart's most boisterous score, full of lively "Turkish" ornamentations, with plenty of bounce and verve. The singing's good too, with an attractive quartet of romantic principals - Norman Reinhardt (Belmonte) Mark Wilde (Pedrillo), Rebecca Nelson (Kostanze) and Susanna Andersson (Blonde). Gentle giant Matthew Rose doesn't quite convince as the nasty heavy, meat-headed Osmin, but his resonant bass commands attention and Aaron Neil is effective in the speaking role of Selim.

Die Entführung aus dem Serail is a crowd-pleaser and that's very much the route Slater goes down. It's good to see it on the stage, a surprisingly rare occurrence these days, but the weaknesses of the production give some clues to the reasons for its neglect.


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