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The Abduction from the Opera House

Robert R. Reilly, a one time Pasha Selim in New York (vis-à-vis Faye Robinson), did Ionarts the honor of reviewing last night's Abduction performance of the National Symphony Orchestra.

From left to right: Casey-Cabot, Clement, Lee, Baker, Short

Additional Commentary by Jens F. Laurson:

The Abduction from the Seraglio is a lovable but silly opera, and no one should expect less than silly when going to a performance, be it in the opera house or semi-staged as it was at the National Symphony Orchestra’s performance this Thursday (to be repeated today, Friday and tomorrow, Saturday, at 8PM). If you are fine with a healthy amount of slapstick, you’ll be served well by the NSO’s production and TV anchor Sam Donaldson as TV anchor Pasha Selim.

The production, though, before the charm assault wears the critics' defenses down by the end of the nearly three-hour long program (two intermissions account for some of that length), raises a few questions. It seems, in all, an odd compromise between fully staged opera and a concert performance. The right third of the stage was reserved for the opera’s action that also spread out in front of the orchestra and into the hall via a walkway. The orchestra itself was seated in an aqua-colored enclosure to the left, their chairs and music stands wrapped in cloth of the same color. The singers acted the opera out and appeared in costume – if not exactly elaborate ones. There were no supertitles but the Power Point™-like projections onto a screen above the orchestra gave spunky summaries of what the singers were singing about. The ample dialogue was in English, adapted and rewritten for this performance by librettist Richard Sparks. All this added up to a questionable hybrid. The insistence on dialogue in English assured that the producers wanted the audience to understand the funny bits. But the music’s text was left alone, perhaps for fear of meddling too much with Mozart. But since we all know that virtually no one understands a lick of what the singers mumble about in some foreign language and given that no supertitles were provided, the music is for all practical purposes expected to stand on its own, to be absolute music. It’s Mozart’s music and it manages fairly well. But then why bother hamming it up with that English-language play in between? It thus becomes a high-quality variétés performance, although perhaps with wide appeal.

Leonard Slatkin led an indistinct, somewhat heavy, but well-playing NSO. He also partook a little in the fun-’n’-games in what was probably the wittiest scene. Ordered by Kevin Short’s Osmin to meddle around stage left, the NSO took its own cue, starting to play before Slatkin could race back to the podium to resume pretending to conduct. Said Osmin was one of the highlights of the performance - at least after some vocal posturing in his first appearance. The other one was JiYoung Lee’s Blonde. A clean and big voice, she had audible fun with her role. Size was not Jennifer Casey Cabot’s problem – but she never seemed to warm to her role of Constanze and, although singing well, never made much of an impression. Trills in her first aria were merely a wider sort of vibrato. Richard Clement’s Belmonte was underpowered and not the most pleasing voice, either, but handled himself well and efficiently. His “Wer ein Liebchen hat gefunden” enchanted. Robert Baker’s Pedrillo (Baker was reviewed on Ionarts as Baron Jacobi in Democracy) had a fair performance. He will have been entertaining to most in the sparse audience; I found his interpretation of “Pedrillo as Will to Blonde’s Grace” less funny. The “Ach Belmonte! Ach mein Leben!” quartet that closes Act Two was excellent, but the opera's penultimate number, the Vaudeville “Nie werd’ ich deine Huld verkennen,” seemed a bit rushed and all too jolly. Not of the same quality as the Gardiner recording offered when I replayed that part five times at Gramercy Park last summer. The overture was accompanied with a faux-naïve cartoon by director Douglas Fitch that will have passed as cute with most. Sam Donaldson's enthusiastic Pasha, performed via video feed live from the green room behind stage (perhaps to make him look like the newscaster we know him as? But then the direction should have zoomed out a little to let us see the big desk behind which he was sitting) and came out for the last scene. Washington loves its celebrity appearances – and after Supreme Court Justices in Die Fledermaus, this seemed the logical extension. We now await Wolfowitz as Alberich in the upcoming Rheingold.

Altogether the concert was a jollier affair than dissecting its parts may make it sound like, I could have imagined Mozart served better (perhaps with a concert performance of Cosí), but for those who know what to expect, this will do.
Thursday night, the NSO, soloists, and the Master Chorale of Washington, under Leonard Slatkin, offered a 250th birthday salute to Mozart. These forces gave a semi-staged performance of The Abduction from the Seraglio, the first of three performances held not in the Opera House, but in the Concert Hall of the Kennedy Center. Abduction is perhaps Mozart’s most effervescent opera. It put him on the map in Vienna in 1782 and was, according to some sources, his most popular opera while he was alive. Thursday night was not the champagne evening it could have been, but neither was it flat beer. It was a good-hearted, if sometimes silly effort under less than ideal circumstances.

The setting inevitably imparted a kind of “we can do it in the barn” atmosphere to the proceedings, not entirely inappropriate to the spirit of a Singspiel. Stage left served as the platform for most of the action, while the orchestra was seated stage right. Over it was placed a screen on which was projected various cartoon drawings, a few supertitles, aria summaries, and oddest of all, Sam Donaldson, who had been advertised as playing the role of Pasha Selim -- the longest non-singing role in opera -- but who appeared on video -- perhaps to make those accustomed to seeing him on TV more comfortable. The overture was illustrated by some cartoons that looked like Edward Gorey works from a bad day in grade school. I cannot give a thoroughly honest account of them because, of all things, I shut my eyes in order to listen to the music.

Anyway, the cartoons served as fair warning that Abduction would be interpreted broadly and with some slapstick. And this was the case. Two seats in front of me were seated a father and his son, probably not more than eight years old. I liked seeing this and wished that my own son were with me, as it appeared the production would be largely aimed at his age level.

I can point out a number of minor faults with the production’s attitude – minor, because, after all, this is a light-hearted comedy. The new English language libretto for the spoken dialogue -- the singing was in the original German -- is forgivably and forgettably sophomoric. The solecisms – such as Korean soprano JiYoung Lee (Blonde) telling Osmin, “I am not a slave; I’m a free-born Korean girl” – may get a cheap chuckle, but it transgresses the necessary conventions of comedy. Letting us know that they know that this is funny does not add to the fun. It deflates it. The fiction makes it fun. Maintain the fiction. Too often, the singers were, figuratively speaking, sticking their heads out from behind the scrim to wink at us in a knowing way about something we already knew.

Vocally, the star of the evening was bass Kevin Short as Osmin. While that is a well-deserved compliment to him, it also may be less than flattering to the other principals who certainly had the opportunity to cover themselves with glory in the wonderful opportunities their roles afforded them. Short also excelled in his characterization of Osmin, as opposed to the “opera acting” that passes for acting in opera.

For perspective, I should say that no one was really less than adequate. JiYoung as Blonde was more than that with her rich, syrupy voice, though her Korean accent made a few words of the English dialogue difficult to grasp. She also had some fun with her role.

available at Amazon
W.G.Mozart, Die Entführung aus dem Serail,
Krips / WPh / Popp, Gedda, Rothenberger, Unger, Frics

Other Reviews:

Daniel Ginsberg, 'Abduction': Taken With a Grain of Salt (Washington Post, January 27)

Charles T. Downey, K. 384 (DCist, January 28)

Tim Smith, Charms of Mozart's 'Abduction' brought to light (Baltimore Sun, January 31)
Tenor Richard Clement as Belmonte started with a slight rasp in his voice that soon disappeared in some lovely lyrical singing, but his voice was simply too small to carry this role convincingly. When faced with soprano Jennifer Casey Cabot as Constanze, he was swamped. Cabot has a big voice, easily reaching the upper registers with plenty of power. She can project it into every cranny of the hall. The problem is that her vibrato tended to swallow her performance and give a kind of sameness to her singing. One’s enjoyment of her performance was in part determined by one’s tolerance of vibrato, which in my case was not very wide. Tenor Robert Baker as Pedrillo had a strong first half but seemed to lose some steam in parts of the second.

The unevenness in vocal powers made the ensemble singing in the gentler moments the highlight of the evening, aside from Short's performance. That is because, piano or pianissimo, all singers are equal, at least when they are as talented as this group. The quartet at the end of Act Two was a particularly lovely example.

Slatkin and the NSO may not have been the last word in élan, but their support throughout the evening was more than fine. If the tempos were somewhat leisurely, the lyrical moments were given tender loving care. I did not hear one misstep in the orchestra.

Sam Donaldson finally showed up in person on stage to condemn the lovers to death mid-point in Act Three. I had begun to speculate that he would take a live curtain call after what seemed like a canned performance, which would have been something new. I will not comment on his performance as I am prejudiced. I knew Pasha Selim. I played Pasha Selim (with members of the Metropolitan Opera Studio in a production back in 1973). Sam is no Pasha Selim. Nonetheless as a celebrity gimmick, it kept one’s attention.


Princess Alpenrose said...

Thanks for the reviews, gentlemen. I think you've painted an accurate picture of the production.

(ps I think this "inset" thing is a little too hard to read, though...)

jfl said...

the fonts being too small or the colors disturbing?? we could probably make it bigger - especially since i have already been told that given the elevated and ripe (err: wise and advanced) age of a good deal of our audience, we should steer away from small fonts. (our business cards tend to have recipients scurry for their reading glasses)

Princess Alpenrose said...

The font size doesn't bother me, it's something else. Hmmm...

What I'm seeing (on my computer anyway) is that the small font in the sidebar, maybe on that particular shade of background? is making the serifs separate weirdly from the main body of each letter. Like, um, as if the text had gone through the wash a few times and ? rubbed or worn off somehow.

Maybe try a plainer font for the small stuff, if it's available, like Arial instead of Times Roman?

Don't know if that helps, but that's what I'm experiencing.

jfl said...
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