THE ABDUCTION FROM THE SERAGLIO: What kind of harem is located aboard the Orient Express?
Last Friday’s Boston Globe Arts & Performance section devoted (wasted?) an entire page to color photos of the set designed in 2002 by Allen Moyers (who’s not mentioned) for Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail (“The Abduction from the Seraglio,” or in plainer English, “The Harem Rescue”) — a production shared by six opera companies including Boston Lyric Opera, whose current English-language revival is at the Shubert Theatre through May 6. It’s an expensive, elegant set, a lovingly detailed theatrical reproduction of railway cars on the Orient Express, the famous train connecting Paris and Istanbul. It would be a terrific set for Murder on the Orient Express or some spy story.
But it doesn’t serve Mozart’s youthful masterpiece of farce and high-minded ethics. The best comedy is based on logic so absolute it becomes absurd; the more seriously the characters take their plight, the funnier the ramifications. But putting on a train an opera about a Spanish nobleman trying to rescue his lady from a harem forces it into a false absurdity. Belmonte’s repeated question — “Is this the Pasha Selim’s house?” — makes no sense. (In 1991, BLO had the equally cockamamie idea of setting Rossini’s Cinderella opera on a boat.) We should be feeling the danger of characters in a powerless position. Can the Pasha’s threats to execute the lovers carry any weight if they’re en route to Paris? The elaborate rescue scene itself, a long stretch without any music, is one of the production’s few dead spots.
Let’s get the worst over with. The aspect of James Robinson’s stage business that drives me crazy (as it did in BLO’s L’elisir d’amore earlier this season) is that he doesn’t trust the music. At the most inopportune times, someone is invariably distracting us from what should be our center of attention. The most moving moment in the opera is Konstanze’s great aria “Martern aller Arten” (“Torments unrelenting” in the Andrew Porter English translation BLO uses), in which she heroically refuses to capitulate to the Pasha’s threats — which here consist of silks, furs, jewels, and perfume! While she’s singing about facing death, Osmin, the Pasha’s harem keeper, enters with a large hookah, and Konstanze’s servant, Blonde, pours Konstanze’s leftover champagne into her own glass and chug-a-lugs it during the long climactic high note. Can this be the right place for an easy laugh?
Since Mozart’s glorious score is sung here by an excellent cast under a stylish conductor, gimmicks and half-baked “conceptions” are especially unnecessary. The real star is not the set but Met soprano Mary Donleavy (in her first BLO appearance since her glowing Pamina back in 2000). Her big, warm voice is up to Mozart’s heaviest demands, which include two of his most challenging arias back to back. Early on, the fiendish high notes were, though accurate, too loud and shrill; but by “Martern aller Arten” (not quite as high), everything sounded round and juicy. And she’s a convincing and sympathetic actress. As Blonde, soprano Amanda Pabyan, a BU grad who made her Met debut as Mozart’s Queen of the Night, has impressive vocal chops (including a solid high E) and lively comic timing. But Blonde is supposed to be British, and Pabyan’s accent was more Brighton, Massachusetts, than Brighton, England.