“Too many notes” was the purported response from Emperor Joseph I of Austria to genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart after the premiere of The Abduction from the Seraglio (1872). Quicksilver Mozart's purported reply was “Just as many as necessary.”
After the heady sturm und drang of Wagner's mighty Götterdämmerung at Houston Grand Opera, what more serene way to end the season than Abduction's elegance and classical benediction. This is opera buffa with smarts, a singspiel (a play with songs, the forerunner of every Broadway musical) that explores love, jealousy and forgiveness with wide swathes of merrymaking and a modern retelling that sets the story on the Orient Express. The visual delights and opulence in James Robinson's production will have you booking tickets for the fabled train immediately after.
Young Mozart, 26 at the time, regarded by many in Vienna as a most original talent, had been commissioned by the emperor to write an opera in German. The “Great Reformer” wanted to solidify the language throughout his vast domain, and what better way to accomplish this than by words and music. A catchy tune would wheedle the language into his subjects' ears. By this time, basically freelance – the first such musician to go off on his own without noble patronage – Mozart worked on the score and extensively altered Gottlieb Stephanie's libretto to suit his purposes. Like Verdi, Mozart was an instinctively acute man of the theater and knew exactly how to structure his plots to maximize their effectiveness.
Islam was on everyone's mind in Vienna. Based in Constantinople, the Ottomans had been nibbling away at the Hapsburg empire for centuries, chewing off far provinces then retreating, a constant irritant to all of Europe, causing all sorts of wars and economic hardships throughout the continent. One hundred years before, the very gates of Vienna were besieged by the Muslim forces of the Grand Vizier Mustafa, and had only been beaten back by the swift and deadly Polish cavalry. But the invasions never truly abated, although Constantinople's power was somewhat waning, owing to its lack of military industry and a reliance on brute strength instead of strategic tactics. Five years after Abduction, Austria would join the Holy League and rout the Ottomans in the last of the Austro-Turkish wars.
All things Islam were in vogue in Vienna, and it's not surprising Mozart would join the fad. But, as usual, he's much more subtle in his handling than his contemporaries, for he turns ideology into a paean of love – from both sides. Pasha Selim (a speaking role, the smooth Christopher Purvis) enslaves Konstanze (coloratura soprano Albina Shagimuratova), her English maid Blonde (feisty soprano Uliana Alexyuk) and the servant Pedrillo (hearty tenor Chris Bozeka), steward to our hero Belmonte (lyrically graceful tenor Lawrence Brownlee). Selim gives Blonde to his majordomo Osmin (the formidable bass Ryan Speedo Green), but she won't have anything to do with the big lug. Green is as massive as Rex Ingram's genie in Korda's Thief of Baghdad, and dwarfs everyone else onstage.
Konstanze is plied with jewels, gowns and fur coats, cigarettes and champagne, but she will not yield, for she loves Belmonte and hopes he might save her. “I like you,” she says teasingly to her new master, “but love, never.” When he tells her ominously he has ways of making her yield, she flies into one of Mozart's most sublime showstoppers, “Marten aller Arten” (“Torture me with all you have”), a musical precursor to that other great coloratura showpiece, The Queen of the Night's "Der Hölle Rache" (Hell's vengeance”) from The Magic Flute. Shagimuratova sails through this treacherous piece with facility but not much passion. She doesn't quite seem at ease in the role, and her acting is much more grande-dame than young heartsick lover. But, boy, can she toss off Konstanze's acrobatic roulades and high notes.
I hardly recognized Brownlee from the last time I saw him at HGO (Rossini's Italian Girl in Algiers – another East meets West comedy). He's lost a substantial amount of weight, and he looks great. Fortunately, it hasn't affected his bell-like tenor, nor his effortless facility. If you think “easy listening” applies to '50s lounge singers, get a load of Brownlee's charm and sophistication with a melody. He's a master of bel canto, and can be a smooth physical comedian.
Green has the opera's scene-stealing role in Osmin. Blustery and in high dudgeon throughout, he wants all the Christians dead, except Blonde, of course, with whom he's absolutely smitten. “Chop their heads off, flay them, roast them on a spit,” he comically cries. Pedrillo gets him drunk, so the trio can make their escape, in the famous “Vivat Bacchus,” a bouncy duet in which Osmin slobbers over his sworn enemy. Alcohol's an Islamic prohibition of the first order, so making Osmin so deliriously drunk is another example of Mozart's warm humanizing of the human condition. Osmin is one of the great bass roles in opera, written particularly for one of Mozart's friends, Ludwig Fischer, renowned for his prodigiously deep voice and sparkling agility. Green has the bass, but not the stirring bottom that could shake rafters, but he's a stage presence without equal, and he makes the most out of the role.
This may not be the definitive performance of Abduction, but it's certainly capably performed, conducted with wit by Austrian maestro Thomas Rösner, who has an affinity for the works of Mozart. The train set is marvelously conveyed with projected chugging background, choristers moving along the platform, and, naturally, the rich mahogany and mirrored interiors of the Venice Simplon. Updating to the Art Deco period is inspired, adding another layer of visual splendor to Mozart's outstanding aural beauties. One of the wonders of the score is a little throwaway, Pedrillo's romanza “Im Mohrenland” (In a Moorish land), accompanied here on his “ukulele,” but scored for pizzicato strings with lilting air. It's Mozart at his most deceptively simple, tossing off a “romanza” with the skill of Orpheus. Too many notes? I don't think so!
The Abduction from the Seraglio continues at. 2 p.m. April 30; 7:30 p.m. May 6, May 10, May 12. Houston Grand Opera, Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. For information, call 713-228-6737 or visit hgo.org. Sung in German with English projections. $15 to $325.
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