Monday, May 9, 2011


Estates Theater
May 7

Kateřina Kněžíková gets some help with the high notes.

Even before the curtain opens, it’s clear that the National Theater’s new Die Entführung aus dem Serail is going to be one of those tricked-up affairs. As conductor Tomáš Netopil set himself to start the overture of Saturday night’s premiere, a junior Mozart – a boy of 9 or 10 in a period costume and powdered wig – popped out to the front of the stage, and mimicked Netopil’s movements for about 30 bars. He then dashed behind a scrim, where a puzzling dance-and-rejection sequence played out between shadowy figures for the rest of the overture.

That set the tone for a generally disappointing evening, with a good set of singers and a strong orchestral performance undercut by a cluttered, confusing production. Belgian director Joël Lauwers has transposed an exotic romantic comedy from a Turkish harem to a French drawing room, where children run on and off the stage all night for no apparent reason, the Pasha shuffles and growls like Brando in The Godfather, and the characters seem caught in a state of existential despair rather than emotional longing. It has its moments, but few of them bear any relation to Mozart’s 1782 German singspiel.

The story utilizes a popular theatrical theme of the period, the rescue of a beautiful European woman from her Turkish abductors. Konstanze and her maid Blonde are being held in the palace of Pasha Selim, along with Blonde’s boyfriend Pedrillo. Selim is pressuring Konstanze to give in to his amorous desires or die, while the evil seraglio (harem) overseer Osmin has similar designs on Blonde. The opera opens with the arrival of Konstanze’s lover Belmonte, and follows his and Pedrillo’s often-fumbling attempts to save their women, with the foursome finally saved by an improbable plot twist in the final scene.

This is the stuff of light comedy, with even the intimidating Osmin painted in broad, humorous strokes. Rendering it that way is not easy; the format of the singspiel dictates extended arias and ensemble pieces strung together by straight dialogue (the Pasha is a strictly spoken part), making comic timing difficult. Instead of trying to pick up the pace, Lauwers breaks it up even more with long silent stretches and tangential action and characters, making it impossible to establish a rhythm. Two set pieces drew some laughs – Osmin literally squeezing some high notes out of Blonde during a massage, and Pedrillo (Jaroslav Březina) making full use of his ample stomach in a drunken dance with Osmin. Otherwise, the audience was dead quiet for most of the evening.

Lauwers also drains the life out of his characters. Belmonte and Pedrillo are sniveling hand-wringers who cower and crawl on the floor, whipped and abused by Osmin, who seems to have a taste for S&M. They are not so much inept as emasculated. So is the Pasha for that matter, despite the heavyweight casting of German actor Markus Boysen in the role. He glowers and threatens but does his begging on his back, like a whimpering dog. Osmin has been changed into a crotchety old bookkeeper with a cane and a bad comb-over, cunning but ridiculously out of place.

The women fare better, but not by much. Though she has some heartbreaking arias, it’s impossible to develop any sympathy for Konstanze, whom Lauwers portrays as rejecting the Pasha one moment, then coming on to him the next. A dream sequence (or was it?) of the two of them in bed together muddles matters even further. The only character to survive intact at the premiere was Blonde, thanks to fine work by house regular Kateřina Kněžíková, who has developed into a superb comedic actress/singer.

She and Simona Houda-Šaturová, who sings Konstanze, make the opera worth seeing despite its flaws. Houda-Šaturová’s forte is not the intricate coloratura lines that Mozart originally wrote for his friend Caterina Cavalieri, but her round, lustrous soprano is very well-suited to the emotional demands of the role, especially the two extended arias in Act II. Tenors Aleš Briscein (Belmonte) and Jaroslav Březina held their own at the premiere, but the biggest hand of the night went to Jan Šťáva, whose commanding bass and villainous swagger made for an entertaining Osmin.

The orchestra, which always sounds good when Netopil is at the podium, also drew enthusiastic applause. Too bad the audience never got to hear one of the more interesting voices on the stage – that of Juwana Jenkins, a fiery local blues singer who added a smoldering sensual presence to Act II in the silent role of a slave attendant in the spa.

Every director has a right to put his own stamp on a production, but there’s not much coherence in this one – or respect. When he was composing Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Mozart labored mightily to put a pivotal ensemble scene at the end of Act II, where it would have the greatest dramatic and musical impact. This production thoughtlessly cuts Act II in half, dropping an intermission in the middle of it and burying the ensemble piece in the second half of the performance. That’s an abuse of dramatic license in any century.

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