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DVD: Crotchet

Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Die Entführung Aus Dem Serail (1782)
Laura Aikin (soprano) – Konstanze; Edgaras Montvidas (tenor) – Belmonte; Mojca Erdmann (soprano) – Blonde; Michael Smallwood (tenor) – Pedrillo; Kurt Rydl (bass) – Osmin; Steven Van Watermeulen (speaker) – Bassa Selim
Chorus of De Nederlandse Opera
Netherlands Chamber Orchestra/Constantinos Carydis
Johan Simons (production)
rec. live, Het Muziektheater, Amsterdam, February 2008
Region Code: 0, Aspect Ratio 16:9, LPCM Stereo and DTS 5.1 Surround
OPUS ARTE OA1003D [214:00]
Experience Classicsonline

It is most welcome to have this performance of Seraglio from Amsterdam. While the production will raise some eyebrows it is never less than thought-provoking, and the singing is mostly top-notch.
Leading the pack is the excellent Konstanze of Laura Aikin. She shows utter security in Mozart’s most difficult soprano role, especially in her two big killer arias in Act 2. Traurigkeit has a plangent tone of despair to it, while still seeming beautiful, and her top register creams off the challenging top notes in a way that showcases the character’s humanity. Martern aller Arten is every bit as good: the fiendish coloratura is fired off with seeming ease, and that’s especially remarkable in the light of the many odd contortions the director requires her to pull while singing it! True, the leaps and runs at the end of Ach, ich liebte are less secure, but they’re always going to be in a live recording - it’s her first aria, after all - and it takes the rarefied conditions of a studio recording to achieve perfection here. Mojca Erdmann’s Blonde is perhaps even more secure, but there is a very obvious contrast in their voices which enables their characterisation to develop differently. Erdmann’s soprano is bright and clean at the top, glistening like silver in Durch Zärtlichkeit und Schmeicheln, but brimming with exuberance in Welche Wonne, Welche Lust. She gives us down-to-earth contrast while her mistress scales the dramatic heights of her distress. Opposite her, Michael Smallwood is perhaps the perfect Pedrillo. He acts with remarkable good humour, not least when he is being beaten up by Osmin, and his tenor voice carries a burnished glow to it, while at the same time being light and pingy. He deserves to be heard more often. The chief veteran of the cast is Kurt Rydl’s Osmin who can still astonish in this role. His voice has a thunderous resonance to it, making Osmin by far the biggest presence on stage. He dominates every scene, from his studied ignoring of Belmonte in Act 1 through to his jubilation at his – supposedly - imminent execution in Act 3. The power of his voice is so great that it feels almost like it comes with a built-in echo. The only doubt lies over Edgaras Montvidas’s rather watery Belmonte. There is very little ring in his voice: from his entrance aria he seems unsure of himself, pale and somewhat out of his depth. He makes all the top notes, but there is little comfort in listening to him and he is the colder, less comfortable element in every ensemble. That said, the moments when the singers come together are still fantastic, and the reunion quartet is absolutely glorious, as good as I’ve ever heard it. Equally, Belmonte and Konstanze’s duet before they are set free in Act 3 carries all the emotion and musicality that one would hope for from this piece.
So what of the production? Johan Simons’ central idea is that during her captivity Konstanze has fallen in love with Bassa Selim, but that the commitment she previously made to Belmonte is preventing her from acting upon it. He thus reverses the accepted idea that marriages of convenience existed in the east but not in the west, and on this foundation he builds a whole structure of artifice. The production draws attention to its own theatricality in an almost Brechtian manner. The opening confrontation between Belmonte and Osmin takes place on a pair of red auditorium seats, and once the curtain raises we see a trompe l’oeil backdrop depicting an empty stage receding off to the back wall. When this is raised for Selim’s entrance, we see that his palace is laid out like a large proscenium with a stage in the middle, and it is on this stage that the characters all perform. The cast interviews included in the extras suggest that Simons is drawing attention to the lack of understanding between east and west, and that the whole opera takes place in a fake world dreamt up by the Europeans who have not understood their Turkish counterparts. It’s an interesting conceit, and is played out in smaller details too: Konstanze’s body language is much more intimate with the Bassa than it ever is with her fiancée, and she looks far from pleased to see Belmonte when he appears in Act 2. This is mirrored, albeit with less consistency, in the portrayal of Blonde, who dresses like a dominatrix in her riding jacket and knee-high boots. She titillates Osmin, even whipping him during Durch Zärtlichkeit, suggesting a reversal of the way their relationship is traditionally perceived.
All of the theatrical devices - sets, costumes, props - then disappear during the last act until, most spectacularly, the proscenium of the Bassa’s palace collapses leaving the stage utterly bare. By this point all the characters - except, interestingly, Osmin - are wearing modern western dress. This all happens just as the truth of the Bassa’s relation to Belmonte’s father is revealed, so all the western misconceptions of the east are laid bare and resolved. The release of the prisoners then becomes somewhat muted, and the ebullience of the final chorus jars with the dark picture on stage.
This concept won’t appeal to everyone, and there is an argument that it is too intricate to fit with the text, but I enjoyed watching it, and it is good to have a Seraglio that engages with the conflict between east and west without dressing everyone up in turbans and scimitars. Don’t be put off by the photo on the cover of the DVD: that’s all part of the artifice too! It helps that all the actors seem convinced by it and they throw themselves into the concept, even the highly stylised acting of the final scene which is reminiscent of Japanese Nōh drama. In such a production the role of Bassa Selim assumes even more importance than normal, and Steven Van Watermeulen seems to relish this, playing the various nuances of the character with skill, and just enough over-the-top exuberance.
In the pit the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra acquit themselves admirably. They play on modern instruments, but the strings carry a hint of period inflection, and the timpani sound as though they could be natural. Carydis keeps the Turkish moments going at a fair lick, and this seems to be too much for a recalcitrant piccolo during the overture, but his reading is not all greased lightning. The tender moments are allowed room to breathe: for example, he takes the opening of Ach, ich liebte daringly slowly so that the contrast of the faster sections is even more marked. The chorus sing well during their brief appearances.
For someone wanting a Seraglio that will make them think rather than revel in Turkish kitsch, this DVD can be strongly recommended. Carydis uses the text of the 1982 Neue Mozart Ausgabe, It’s the same one used by Gardiner in his recording on Archiv with the English Baroque Soloists. The result is a few musical additions that will surprise those used to recordings of the 1960s and 1970s.
The extras include interviews with the cast and director and backstage rehearsal footage, setting a high standard for what a modern opera DVD should have. The picture quality is very good, as is the sound, even if the voices initially seem very far forward in DTS 5.1. Great as the singing is, though, it will be a long time before any edition will replace Karl Böhm’s audio recording with the Staatskapelle Dresden in my affections. With zingy orchestral playing, great solo contributions and a perfect Konstanze from Arleen Auger, this is still the one to beat.
Simon Thompson


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