When the curtain rose on Act II of San Francisco Opera's current production of The Abduction from the Seraglio, and Anna Christy's Blonde began to wrap Peter Rose's Osmin—and his underlings, and the entire audience at the War Memorial Opera House—around her petite finger, the production suddenly came to life. And not a moment too soon.
Most would agree that Mozart's thorny 1782 Singspiel is a difficult one to pull off. Neither as sophisticated in its realism as The Marriage of Figaro, nor as blissfully fantastical as The Magic Flute, Abduction and its dated exoticisms are a tricky sell with modern audiences, especially those on the West Coast. (Is it any wonder that this is only the third staging of Abduction at San Francisco Opera in the past thirty years? Even Idomeneo has seen more productions here.) Director Chas Rader-Shieber has tinkered with his production since its premiere last year at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Throughout the first act, however, one still had the impression that Rader-Shieber and debuting conductor Cornelius Meister were as lost as the blindfolded harem girls on whose lumbering slapstick they so often relied.
Unwilling to fully commit either to the farce itself or to the tongue-in-cheek doubling effect suggested by the period-theater set design, Rader-Shieber's performers left a somewhat awkward impression. Mary Dunleavy's Constanze was warm in tone but ill at ease with the roulades in her opening aria, 'Ach ich liebte', cheating the passaggi and often ahead of Meister's baton. The overall uncertainty was compounded by Rose's alternately hysterical, stiff and muddled Osmin, on whose shoulders the whole of the first act's success or failure depends. Timing was occasionally off between the various sections of the orchestra. And the jarring back-and-forth between German recitative-and-aria and a poorly abridged English translation of the dialogue left a painfully obvious line of demarcation between those reciting lines and those inhabiting a role.
Falling into the latter category was the encouragingly assured and nuanced Matthew Polenzani, the only cast member to migrate from the Lyric, who has also sung Belmonte at the Metropolitan Opera. His was a thinking-man's Belmonte, for whom musical details too often overlooked or phoned-in by other singers (a sforzando here, a messa di voce there) became dramatic tools, shades on a character. His tour-de-force 'O wie ängstlich' conveyed in physical gesture and vocal phrasing the birth of the empfindsamer male, genuinely buffeted about by his emotions.
And then came Anna Christy. In Act II, her Mae-West-inflected insouciance and effervescent soubrette electrified the production, which also benefited from a deliberate loosening of Act I's over-the-top nods to eighteenth-century theatrical and gestural conventions. After Blonde's crowd-pleasing entrance aria ('Durch Zärtlichkeit'), Rose's Osmin relaxed considerably, truly relishing their battle-duet ('Ich gehe, doch rathe ich dir'), while Dunleavy's Constanze gained in both tenderness ('Traurigkeit') and bravura ('Marten aller Arten'), notwithstanding continued inaccuracies in the fioritura.
Second-year Adler fellow Andrew Bidlack, unfortunately, appeared out of his depth with Pedrillo, both as an actor and in the high A's of 'Frisch zum Kampfe'. He improved, however, in the ensembles, and his less-challenging Romanze, 'In Mohrenland gefangen war', was a success. That Romanze, however, was stripped of its narrative power by a strange directorial alteration. Instead of acting as the coded signal for the ladies to escape, as in the original libretto, Rader-Shieber had Pedrillo introduce 'Im Mohrenland' as a 'serenade' to no one in particular, a prelude to the abduction he and Belmonte are about to carry out. Pedrillo merrily sings away, oblivious to the fact that his lollygagging has led to his partners in crime being captured, one by one, by Osmin and the palace guards. Played for cheap laughs, this change removes not only the original dramatic function of the Romanze, but also the modicum of cleverness bestowed on Pedrillo by Abduction's librettist, Gottlieb Stephanie the Younger.
But this was not even the most bizarre of the many liberties taken with the libretto. Rader-Shieber and his translator, Philip Kuttner, also inserted an absurdly inappropriate love-speech from Pasha Selim to Constanze at the close of the opera, after he grants the four captives their freedom. Where Stephanie had merely hinted at Selim's affection for Constanze with a single, charged line, in this production the Pasha indulged in a confessional monologue astounding in its anachronism. The twentieth-century soap-opera vocabulary stuck out like a sore thumb. What is it about spoken dialogue, as opposed to recitative, that appears both more alterable and more expendable to opera directors? To be sure, Stephanie is no Shakespeare, nor even a Da Ponte, but the audience deserved better.
Thankfully, the gloriously humane trajectory of the Act II quartet (the true climax of the opera) proved immune to trivialization. As Constanze, Belmonte, Blonde, and Pedrillo moved through their complex dance of reunion, doubt, and reconciliation, their fluid pairings and repairings displayed physical ease, vocal ensemble, and—most crucially—real psychological crisis. It was their commitment to the naturalism of the drama, in other words, that ultimately rescued this Abduction.
Photo credits: Cory Weaver