Humor on the Orient Express

Ever since Vienna's Emperor Joseph II quipped that Mozart's The Abduction from the Seraglio had too many notes, the composer's first opera in German has weathered an outpouring of criticism: The derivative libretto's foiled getaway climaxes in silence; the score's solemn culminating moment is interrupted by the jarring outburst of a Turkish harem boss. Directors have sought to cover up these flaws since the comic opera premiered in Vienna in 1782. Director James Robinson, in his staging of The Abduction for Houston Grand Opera, succeeds.

Robinson has moved Mozart's singspiel -- a play that is both sung and spoken -- from its original 18th-century Turkey to a fashionable French line of the Orient Express in the 1920s, a setting that offers plenty of opportunities for visual humor. HGO has also transported the production from the Wortham Center's large stage to its much smaller Cullen Theater, harking back to an earlier time when operas were performed in intimate spaces.

Dicey, suspenseful action unspools in train compartments and hallways, where scenes are choreographed side-by-side as on a split television screen. Champagne flows freely and everyone is quick to light up a cigarette, lending the show the campy feel of an Upstairs, Downstairs episode. Robinson's understanding of comedy and vaudeville blends nicely with the commendable orchestration of music director Patrick Summers and the HGO orchestra.

As the story opens, Pasha Selim, a Turkish noble and harem owner, is holding three Europeans captive on a train bound for Paris. A highborn Spanish lady named Konstanze, her English maid, Blonde, and Pedrillo, the valet of Konstanze's fiancé, were captured and sold by Turkish pirates after their ship wrecked. When Konstanze's betrothed, Belmonte (tenor Eric Cutler), sneaks onto the train and is reunited with his servant Pedrillo (tenor Scott Scully), the two devise a plot to rescue the women. But first they must get past Osmin (bass Joshua Winograde), the muscle that guards Selim's harem.

Meanwhile, Selim (actor Richard Spuler) is wooing Konstanze (soprano Elizabeth Futral) and Osmin is doing his best to win over Blonde (soprano Kristen Reiersen). Belmonte's well-laid plans are foiled when Osmin catches the group making its getaway. But, surprisingly, the magnanimous Selim ends up freeing his captives in an ethical gesture that goes against what Westerners of Mozart's time would have expected from such exotic foreigners. (Perhaps the happy ending is the result of Mozart's own bliss at the time: The composer wrote the opera while he was engaged to his own Konstanze.)

Most of The Abduction's arias are for Belmonte, Konstanze and Osmin. The singers who inhabit these characters capture the sheer beauty of the score's musical invention while easily pulling off the director's hilarious comic design. Wearing short wavy hair, handkerchief hems and other vintage flapper costumes, Futral's Konstanze is exquisite in both appearance and sound. Cutler, pleasantly burly in a light plaid suit, has a tenor instrument that is equal to the score. As Osmin, Winograde exhibits versatile bass and consistent comic timing. Reiersen sings Blonde with a playful agility in arias and duets. Scully, as Pedrillo, measures up well in various ensemble scenes.

The cast's solid timing speaks highly of Robinson's guiding hand. As the squabbling Belmonte and Osmin, Cutler and Winograde cut up unmercifully from the start, signaling what the players have in store. The romantic tug-of-war between master Selim and his captive Konstanze gets turned upside-down during a parallel romance scene in which Blonde gains the upper hand over her master, Osmin. Even during the more serious final ensemble, Robinson has the two sets of lovers mistakenly paired.

Rare is the director who can avoid empty slapstick in a musical comedy. During the orchestral overture to Konstanze's second-act aria (Tortures of Every Kind), Selim tempts the reluctant Konstanze with lavish rugs, silks, jewels and furs. The meaning of Konstanze's showpiece, in which she vows to endure whatever torture awaits her, is deepened as the soprano nearly succumbs to the lure of Selim's parade of feminine riches. After Selim has freed his captives, the director has Konstanze bolt back to the train and press her gemstone necklace into Selim's hand. His ethics tested once again, he slowly gives it back.

Down to the smallest details, Robinson's direction is the work of a vaudeville visionary with a deep understanding of Mozartian tone. Dramatic flaws are hard to find in the latest remount of The Abduction.

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Cynthia Greenwood