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OPERA REVIEW : Abducting Mozart in a Harem : Tragedy Subdues Comedy of Fragile 'Die Entfuhrung'


Mozart called "Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail," a.k.a. "The Abduction From the Seraglio," a Singspiel . That implies a lightweight comic-opera with spoken dialogue separating the songs.

What he produced in 1782, however, wasn't quite that simple.

The dramatic situation, predicated on romantic intrigue in an exotic setting, does offer ample opportunity for cutesy antics and burlesque rituals. The dramatis personae includes a predictably sassy soubrette, a stock-mischievous schemer and a bigger-than-life buffo villain.

But Mozart never accepted formulas on face value. In "Die Entfuhrung," he moved constantly from heroic gestures to humorous asides, from flights of fantasy to profound revelations. The central characters are figures capable of noble pathos. Though sometimes trivial, the comedy remains stubbornly, probingly human.

The best productions of "Die Entfuhrung" define and explore the middle ground that fuses the silly and the sublime. The fusion, by definition, is fragile.

Michael Hampe's stylish production, created some time ago for the Cologne Opera and introduced Saturday afternoon by the Music Center Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, plays up the potential tragedy and plays down the pervasive comedy. This version works on Hampe's terms, perhaps, better than on Mozart's.

The look is terrific. Hampe has designed an elegant, intimate stage within the stage that accommodates swift scene changes, leaves just enough to the imagination and projects a useful aura of stylized innocence. The floor is carpeted with a wavy semblance of sand. A calm sea glistens in the background. Cutout facades suggest a storybook palace in a palmy desert. Hans Toelstede, the lighting designer, toys poetically with light, shade and silhouette.

Hampe maneuvers his actors--and, make no mistake, they are actors--in and out of focus with fluid ease and telling affect. He avoids clutter, savors balance, reinforces essential moods without resorting to conventional cliche at one bad extreme or to modernist distortion at the other. He never betrays the musical pulse in the process.

One cannot question his taste or his insight. One can, however, regret his solemnity. Osmin, the adorably lovesick, mildly sadistic harem-keeper, is tough, mean and nasty. Period. Expect no laughs from him here. Blondchen, the English feminist who preaches civility in the seraglio, isn't granted much wit or whimsy. The central lovers, on the other hand, are elevated in instant grandeur, and the tormented Pasha Selim imitates an extrovert hero who has wandered out of some Schiller epic.

The ensemble assembled by Peter Hemmings looks splendid in Vera Marzot's picturesque costumes, and nearly everyone acts with urgent poise. Nearly ? The qualifier is necessitated only by the Pedrillo, a smart-alecky juvenile who is permitted--encouraged?--to mug, cloy and sputter nonstop.

Some attributes may have gotten lost in the transplantation from Cologne to Los Angeles. Take, for instance, the matter of spoken dialogue.

Hampe has retained miles of the original text, restoring many passages normally cut. This might make perfect sense with a German cast and a German audience. Here we have a Polish Konstanze, an American Blondchen, an American Pedrillo, a Finnish Belmonte and a Finnish Osmin all babbling on and on in strangely accented Deutsch . Meanwhile, an uncomprehending audience reads minimalist translations flashed on a screen atop the proscenium.

Serious lines end up seeming funny. Ultimately, the foreign chatter becomes an exercise in alienation. There has to be a better way. Remember opera in English?

Incidentally, Osmin's constantly repeated expletive, "Gift und Dolch," never gets super-titled. Never underestimate the power of poison and dagger.

Although the cast works hard, it ends up looking better than it sounds. In Mozart that can be vexing.

Elzbieta Szmytka is a pretty, dignified Konstanze who sings her difficult music with ample agility and accuracy. She conquers the hurdle of "Martern aller Arten" with honor. Her slender soprano tends to get edgy at the top, however, and her dynamic scale suggests that she might be more impressive in the domestic duties of Blondchen. In this case, the high-flying Gwendolyn Bradley (inexplicably billed as "mezzo-soprano" in Music Center publicity) dispatches the domestic duties with muted bravado.

Jorma Silvasti as Belmonte shirks neither introspective nor florid challenges. He even reinstates "Ich baue ganz auf deine Starke," which many a more famous tenor would rather omit than emit. Unfortunately, his technique doesn't always match his intentions. Doug Jones seconds him as a hyperactive pipsqueaky Pedrillo.

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