The Abduction from the Seraglio pushes COC performers to superhuman heights
Mozart's singspiel splash into exoticism packs in all the technical skills that opera singers work for decades to perfect
Is an opera still an opera if the singers don't always sing, and it's Turkish?
This is not a rhetorical question, or even a hypothetical one; I'm referring to Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio). If you go and see the Canadian Opera Company's production of Abduction, running to Feb. 24 at the Four Seasons Centre, you'll notice two things: The story is set in an Ottoman Empire palace and there's a decent amount of spoken dialogue.
The premise is fairly simple as opera plots go: Belmonte and his servant Pedrillo are out to rescue their fiancées, Konstanze and Blonde, from Pasha Selim, who is keeping them as slaves. As the men sneak and trick their way into the palace, the women stand their ground against the threatening advances of Selim and his servant, Osmin. The two couples are in luck; the Pasha turns out to be a merciful sort, even for a foreign nobleman.
Before you accuse me of exaggerating on this Turkish-ness, let me be clear: Setting an opera in Turkey doesn't make it Turkish. Frankly, to say that Mozart's Abduction is a Turkish opera is akin to saying sweet-and-sour chicken balls are Chinese food. Mozart was one of the many Classical era composers – alongside Haydn and Beethoven – who were jumping on the "Turquerie" ("Turkery") bandwagon, popular because of its perception of being "exotic."
In 18th-century Vienna, this "Turkish" sound was a mimicking of the Ottoman Empire Janissary bands, by adding extra instruments to European orchestras. It's certainly a Eurocentric imitation by someone who's never actually been to Turkey, but this "Turquerie" is surprisingly thrilling to hear, so keep your ears tuned for the sounds of cymbals and piccolos. Even better, have a look into the orchestra pit: During the show, you're likely to see the percussionists flitting back and forth between bass drum and triangle, expert multitaskers that they are.
The music of Abduction is certainly no accurate representation of Turkish music; yet the Janissary band sound is distinct among Mozart's works and functions to evoke the faraway world of this harem. Perhaps more importantly, it conjures up a foreign – read: liberal – sense of morals; maybe operas set in brothels were easier on Viennese audiences if they were convinced the story was definitely not taking place in their own backyards.
So, we've settled this Turkish business; now, on to the conundrum of speech in the middle of an opera.
Under the broad title of opera, Abduction is of the singspiel variety. The term is German for "sing-play," a genre of opera that uses both spoken text and musical numbers. The most famous example of singspiel – not surprisingly also by Mozart – is The Magic Flute.
Dialogue is not unheard of in an opera, but it's rare enough to throw even seasoned opera singers for a loop. They spend so much time training their voices to sing that the idea of speaking feels like a novel, even rusty, skill. If you ask a singer what's most nerve-racking about performing a singspiel such as Abduction, they might tell you it's Mozart's music; more likely, they're most anxious about the dialogue.
Here in Canada, there's a good chance that the singers are performing singspiel dialogue in a language they don't actually speak; the cast for the COC's production features three Canadians (Jane Archibald as Konstanze, Claire de Sévigné as Blonde and Owen McCausland as Pedrillo) and one Swiss tenor (Mauro Peter as Belmonte), so it's no small feat for them to learn, memorize and sound convincing in German. It can be easy for an audience to take for granted that the performers can speak as well as sing; the skills are certainly related, and we see them combined in contemporary musical theatre. Yet, when we talk about such a specialized form of singing – the kind you'll find in Abduction – it's quite impressive these singers have even more room in their brains for a whole other dramatic discipline.
On top of the challenge of execution, the combination of dialogue and singing poses a difficult question for a stage director: Why does a character stop speaking and start singing?
As you sit in your seat, suitably impressed by the singing actors in The Abduction of the Seraglio (or The Magic Flute or even Wicked or Annie), pay attention to the moment where speech turns to singing. At its most basic, that moment comes at a crisis point for the character: They have made a discovery, or fallen in love, or received some terrible news – and now, they have to sing about it. In Act 2, Pedrillo tells Blonde that he and Belmonte are planning to rescue them from Pasha Selim. The news is so great that Blonde can't contain her joy in simple chatter; she bursts into the giddy aria Welche Wonne, welche Lust ("What delight, what joy").
The director's challenge is in making that connection organically; in Abduction, the director is also faced with what are often lengthy musical introductions played by just the orchestra; 30 seconds, one minute, five minutes – it's a huge amount of time for a director to fill without any text to help them along.
This use of different media – orchestra music, spoken text and sung text – is what sets apart a so-so production of an opera such as Abduction from a great one. It's up to the composer, librettist and director to guide the story through these points of crisis, where the emotional stakes rise so high that speech no longer expresses them; the character simply must begin to sing.
And what singing! The music that Mozart wrote for Abduction (at 26 years old, believe it or not) is not for any old cast of singers. Packed into one opera are all the technical skills that opera singers work for decades to perfect. You'll hear dizzying displays of scales and arpeggios: The lovesick Belmonte kicks off Act 1 with more notes than you ever thought possible from a tenor.
You'll hear basses plunging into to their profound depths: Lean forward and listen as Osmin, right-hand man to the overseer of the harem, dives down to a low D and soars back up as high as an F – this is no droning bass role.
Most memorably, the sopranos of Abduction may cause your ears to pop by hitting impossible heights of their range. In particular, the character Blonde is tasked with singing a few much-anticipated – and freakishly difficult – high Es in her first aria. Konstanze may not rise up quite as high, but she makes a flashy entrance with her first aria, Ach, ich liebte ("Oh, I was in love"), twinkling like a beautiful banshee up on high Bs and Cs.
The way Mozart writes for sopranos is a mix of worshipping their skills and testing their limits – and Abduction is such a extreme example that Milos Forman included it in Amadeus, his 1984 film about Mozart's life. We catch a depiction of the debut performance of The Abduction from the Seraglio in Vienna, 1782, as soprano Caterina Cavalieri, the diva who first sang the role of Konstanze, flaunts the behemoth aria in Act 2, Martern aller Arten ("Tortures unrelenting").
On and on Konstanze sings, perched on a high C for countless bars and finishing off her peacock-like exhibitionism with a roller coaster of scales, almost laughable in their ceaselessness. Mozart was surely aware of the hilariously meta title of his aria; sopranos who can tackle it have spent a perhaps torturous amount of time with it in the practice room.
As the folklore goes, Emperor Joseph II allegedly thought of Abduction as having "too many notes." Mozart's retort: "There are just as many notes as there should be!" It's not clear what the official limit of notes is in a tastefully composed opera, but when something like Abduction is performed by singers who are up to the task, it's a total adrenalin rush to witness. Mozart wrote some of the more pointedly difficult roles for specific singers, like the agile voices of Valentin Adamberger (Belmonte) and Cavalieri, and the wide-ranged Ludwig Fischer (Osmin).
Abduction is not as common a pick among Mozart's operas, and a major reason why is that it calls for four remarkable singers, who have specific, even rare, technical abilities. Mozart wrote these roles for living singers in the opera circles of 18th-century Vienna; he considered their natural skills, and composed music that stretched them to almost superhuman heights. Abduction is an opera that has raised the bar for today's singers, who now strive for the level of proficiency that allows them to step into these roles – and bring something unique to their own performance.
If a major opera company such as the COC puts Abduction on its stage, it's likely a chance to hear extraordinary singing.
The Abduction from the Seraglio runs to Feb. 24 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto.