Before we in the West projected our fears and terrors on the Muslim world, we projected our desires and fantasies onto it. And at a time when Vienna was at the edge of the Western world, in the late eighteenth century, peering at another reality just next door, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was one of many artists who traded in the exoticism of the east. His Abduction from the Seraglio, a charming comedy steeped in the del arte tradition, was his most popular opera in his lifetime, and is currently on stage at the Elgin Theatre, courtesy of Opera Atelier.
Mozart may have been following in a conventional tradition with Seraglio, but I wonder if anyone in 1782 realized the force of the genius in the piece that exploded the conventions of opera buffa even as it followed them – the interminable da capo arias, the stock characters, the fake Turkish music. Mozart pulls back the curtain on the tired business of comic opera and reveals real emotion underneath, without ever destroying the sense of play and humour inherent in it.
And if there's a problem with the Opera Atelier production of Seraglio, it's that the company doesn't seem to realize that comedy is at its best when the situations it presents are most real, most true. A fine line separates the tragic and comic – a line Mozart carefully navigates in the score to Seraglio, but one the company sometimes ignores. Comic business on stage often veers towards the farcical, mugging replaces responsiveness, and the lovely truth of Mozart's characters – as admittedly one-dimensional as they are-- often gets swamped by too much comic noise.
Seraglio stands or falls on the basis of its characterizations, and of the five principals, I thought Carla Huhtanen was most winning as Blonde, one of two Western women abducted into the harem of Pasha Selim. Huhtanen sang her part beautifully and was vivid in her portrayal of her libidinous character. Ambur Braid, the aristocratic Konstanze to the earthier Blonde, certainly sang her part with great skill (and Mozart gave Konstanze some very tricky things to sing) but really didn't seem to know, or have a consistent vision of who her character should be. Adam Fisher's Pedrillo, Blonde's lover, was too frenetic to establish a core for his character and Lawrence Wiliford's Belmonte, Konstanze's partner, suffers from the Tamino problem (the prince from the Magic Flute, the opera for which Seraglio was something of a dress rehearsal for Mozart.) And that is, why are all the male characters in Mozart operas so simpy, and why do all the strong women in the operas stay faithful to them? Wiliford sang his part well, but there was an evenness of expression in his delivery that tended to smooth out and homogenize his character. Gustav Andreassen portrayed the comically demonic character of Osmin, the Pasha's harem overseer, with great verve, singing a surprisingly difficult part with conviction.
Sets and costumes, as is the norm for Opera Atelier productions were beautiful and opulent, swirling the stage in a bouquet of burnt oranges, turquoises and reds that suggested the “orientalism”of the setting quite well. Jeanette Zing's choreography provided a lot of excitement and movement to the production. But in the end, it was the Tafelmusik Orchestra led by David Fallis that came closest, I thought, to threading the needle that is the essence of Seraglio. It's a comedy, yes, but it's more – a piece edging into territory far from the slapstick. That ambiguity was there in the music on Saturday night. When it was also on stage, this Opera Atelier Seraglio shone its brightest.