Attention, Opera-holics: Mozart is Coming to Town
The Abduction from the Seraglio (1782) is Mozart's Broadway musical — a singspiel, as musicologists call it, i.e., a comedy with songs and spoken dialogue (and a dance or two). Always the innovator, Mozart takes this pop form and sends it spinning in novel directions that the staid Viennese never could have seen coming.
In director James Robinson's swanky production, the opera takes place onboard the Orient Express. Konstanze has been kidnapped by the Turkish Pasha Salim, who wants to marry her (the Pasha is a speaking role only). Belmonte, Konstanze's lover, follows to rescue her. The comedy arrives with opera buffa character Osmin, the overseer of Pasha's harem, who's been given Konstanze's maid Blonde as his prize. Blonde, as a "modern" woman, will have nothing whatever to do with this blustery chauvinist; she loves Pedrillo, Belmonte's valet.
Tenor Paul Groves makes an impressive HGO debut as fervent Belmonte. A splendid Mozart interpreter, he caresses his lovesick arias with passionate, fluid phrasing. After an edgy start as Konstanze, soprano Tamara Wilson settles in and easily delivers her stunning coloratura showpiece. She's a fine comedienne, too; tempted by the lavish gifts from the Pasha, she reluctantly gives them up, grasping the mink until the last possible moment. As the Pasha, Richard Spuler calls to mind a bored Valentino, exuding cosmopolitan sangfroid. Comedy trio Heidi Stober, Nicholas Phan and Andrea Silvestrelli supply the most fun. Stober literally shimmies as a liberated flapper, warding off blunt Osmin or wrapping Pedrillo around her shapely finger. Phan sings Pedrillo with limpid ardor, and he uses silent movie physical comedy in the role — hog-tied by Osmin, he flops around the train compartment until Belmonte rescues him. Silvestrelli steals the show as Osmin, whose tubby profile enters the room way before he does. His delicious bass wraps itself around Mozart's agile comic passages like a thick Turkish towel.
Mozart brings an almost Shakespearean gravity into the comedy, especially in Konstanze's two defining arias, the grief-filled "Sadness" and the florid showstopper "Tortures of All Kinds." And although the low comedy and dialogue passages can be slow-going, HGO smoothly distracts with its sleek Art Deco train. The photorealistic set design by Allen Moyer, along with the wonderfully moving background seen outside the windows, offers plenty of detail to keep the eye entertained.
Mozart's final opera, which premiered only two months before his untimely death, has something for everyone, which accounts for its enduring popularity. In The Magic Flute (1791), Pamina, daughter of the evil Queen of the Night, has been kidnapped by Sarastro, high priest of the forces of Light and Goodness. The Queen commands prince Tamino to rescue her with the help of an enchanted flute and the wastrel bird-catcher Papageno. After numerous trials and setbacks, the couple is united in love, and the forces of darkness destroyed. Kids love its fairy-tale, good-versus-evil adventure; grownups like the splendid melodies and subtext of honor and duty; both young and old appreciate the forest animals who are bewitched when Tamino plays the magic flute, the Queen of the Night's stratospheric revenge arias and Papageno's low comedy shtick. But nobody likes the convoluted, protracted libretto.
HGO does Mozart no honor in a sloppy mounting of David Hockney's production, which could have benefited from more lighting rehearsals. The layers of borders and flats, resembling a child's illustrated pop-up book, look cheesy. Every wrinkle shows, dispelling the illusion of perspective. Maestro Steven Sloane needs another rehearsal, too, if only to wake him up. What a lugubrious take on Mozart's most accessible score. Where's the magic? At least the singing keeps things interesting, especially sonorous baritone David Hockney as simple, pleasure-loving Papageno, high-flying soprano Albina Shagimuratova as evil Queen of the Night, sweet soprano Rebekah Camm as stalwart Pamina and deep, rumbling bass Raymond Aceto as priestly Sarastro.
This week's operatic surprise turns out to be Francesco Cilea's heavy-breathing Adriana Lecouvreur, which is usually brushed aside by the musical cognoscenti as trashy and worthless. Trash it may be — there's plenty of purple prose in the jumbled libretto — but Cilea envelops this backstage story of jealousy and deadly revenge at the Comédie-Française during the dissolute reign of Louis XV with expansive, lush melody and juicy roles for all.
Opera in the Heights doesn't disappoint, finding a real prima donna in Aida Baligh, who sings the dramatic title role as if possessed. Her plummy soprano remarkably resembles a young Anna Moffo, which is as good as it gets. As her lover Maurizio, tenor John Tsotsoros doesn't fare as well. While he hits every one of Cilea's stentorian high notes without flinching, he's so loud and overpowering that all color drains from his voice. There's no character, just volume. As Adriana's jealous rival, the Principessa, mezzo Perri Montané heats up the stage with luxurious sound. Baritone Peter Hakjoon Kim, as theater manager Michonnet, who's secretly in love with Adriana, rounds out his sympathetic portrayal with luscious musicality.
Cilea's old warhorse, beloved of divas since its premiere in 1902, has plenty of power to enchant. The amazing new voice in town, Aida Baligh, is testament to that.
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