The COC brings one of Mozart’s masterpieces to the Toronto stage
The Canadian Opera Company’s original production of The Abduction from the Seraglio (Die Entfürung aus dem Serail, W.A. Mozart, 1782), under the direction of Wajdi Mouawad, has made some bold and progressive choices with difficult and racially charged subject matter. There is some deviation from the original 18th century text, which is aided by the fact that this is a Singspiel opera, wherein the dialog is spoken, rather than sung as recitative.
After Spanish Nobleman Belmonte (Mauro Peter) undertakes a daring rescue of his fiancée Konstanze (Jane Archibald), her maid Blonde (Claire de Sévigné), and his manservant Pedrillo (Owen McCausland) from the harem of a Turkish Pascha (Raphael Weinstock), the four have returned to life in Vienna. The most significant change to the traditional narrative is that the story takes place in “the moment after” and most of what we are seeing is a flashback, as different characters recount their version of events.
The story was progressive for its time in that it concludes by challenging stereotypes of the era about Turkish culture. The original story is also quite racist for today, in that it perpetuates many longstanding and ongoing stereotypes about Middle Eastern culture and the treatment of women. The insertion of a prologue and some well-chosen modifications to the dialog not only removed the problematic stereotypes, but injected modern day critique of the Islamaphobic assertion made by so-called progressives that Islamic societies are sexist, while they unconsciously participate in a culture that also pedestalizes women while holding them captive.
The set design was impressive and cunningly served the symbolism of this interpretation. The opera begins at an ornate, glitzy Viennese party, realized with elaborate chandeliers and confetti cannons. After some dialog that exposes the tensions that have entered the relationships in the aftermath of their time in captivity, the European frivolity gives way to a majestic and austere kingdom at the centre of the Ottoman Empire’s power.
The costume and props design worked with the set to create stark and striking colour contrasts. The set also featured some impressive mechanical feats, including towering, grey monoliths that rotated to create different areas of the court. The seraglio was rendered as a floating bubble containing the women as though in a trophy case.
Mozart knew who was going to be singing in the premiere when he wrote this opera, and the musical numbers were written with the talents of operatic superstars of the day in mind. Many of the arias are designed to showcase virtuosic feats and a cast of modern day operatic superstars is needed to pull it off. This cast delivered handsomely.
Jane Archibald was solid gold in the role of Konstanze. Her glorious coloratura voice has a robust core and expansive spin throughout every note of her impressive range. Archibald used her stupendous breath control to execute some truly awe-inspiring pianissimo to forte crescendos on the sustained high notes of tour de force aria Martern aller arten.
Claire de Sévigné was charmingly effervescent in the role of sassy lady’s maid Blonde. Her characterization of Blonde, who has been given as a gift to Pascha Selim’s overseer Osmin, walked a fine line between making the best of a bad situation and Stockholm syndrome. Her nimble soubrette coloratura soared like a carefree bird through the intricate passages and shimmering high notes of Durch Zärtlichkeit und Schmeicheln.
She and Goran Jurić in the role of stern, dour Osmin demonstrated superb comedic chemistry. Dramatically, he was an excellent straight man to Blonde and vocally he milked out every drop of dark humour in some of the lowest pitches for bass in the repertoire.
Not only was this a fun and thoughtful interpretation of this eternally popular work, it points the way to a new a path for keeping opera direction current. By taking some risks with the original text, this production maintains the resonance that made this a hit in Mozart’s day by making the story relatable rather than jarring for contemporary audiences.
- The Abduction from the Seraglio is playing until February 24, 2018 at Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts (145 Queen Street West)
- Show times are 7:30 PM on February 16 & 22, with additional matinees at 2:00 PM on February 18 and 4:30 PM on February 24.
- Ticket prices range from $45 – $365. Patrons under 30 can purchase tickets for $22 or $35 here.
- Tickets are available online, or through the box office at 416-363-8231 (long distance 1-800-250-4653).
- Tickets can also be purchased on the TodayTix app and website for theatre tickets. Mooney on Theatre readers can get $15 off their first purchase at checkout with the code MOONEY.
Photo of Jane Archibald and chorus by Michael Moore