Monday, October 19, 2009

"The Abduction from the Seraglio": A not-so-great escape

In the modern world, where etiquette handbooks are passé, and there is always a surfeit of choices of entertainment or food or clothing, a girl has to have a few principles to live by, or else she'll go crazy. Some of my guiding principles: "When in doubt, order a gin gimlet." And, "Life's too short to wear underwear you hate." And, "Don't ever miss a Mozart opera."

The thing about having principles, though, is that they can conflict with the facts of reality. For instance, some bartenders make a really terrible gimlet. Or, you may hate wearing a strapless bra, but maybe that's the only undergarment that works with your new favorite dress. Or, because of the vicissitudes of the opera-house schedule in the city where you live, the first two Mozart operas you see may be lesser works of his, staged and cast in such a way that they feel even more like afterthoughts--pretty little things to fill out the season, rather than highlights of it.

At least, that's what happened to me regarding Mozart at the San Francisco Opera--Idomeneo last season, and The Abduction from the Seraglio this season. No, these aren't Mozart's most profound works (I realized, while talking to my roommate, that the plot of Seraglio would make an excellent Bollywood movie--that's the level of complexity we're talking about), but they contain great music, and I'm sure that in both cases, the productions I saw were not the best possible stagings of these operas.

The Seraglio production took place, for no discernible reason, on a set that resembled an eighteenth-century theater, complete with box seats and painted backdrops (very similar to the Seraglio backdrops seen in the film of Amadeus). I really don't know what this was supposed to represent, though. Nothing else in the staging pointed up the idea of a "play-within-the-play", so why make this choice?

Seraglio is a Singspiel: a proto-musical-comedy that alternates musical numbers with passages of spoken dialogue. The SF production chose to leave the singing in German but translate the dialogue to English--and while I understand the reasoning behind this, the translation was really poor. It alternated contemporary slang ("What's up?" "Whoa there!") with pseudo-classical thee-thou-thy stuff, for an awkward and hard-to-perform hybrid. I also wanted it to be funnier. The author of this translation is one Philip Kuttner, who a Google search reveals is primarily a conductor*; I wish it had been entrusted instead to a professional writer with an ear for dialogue. There are a lot of underemployed playwrights in this town, and I bet some of them even know German!

Because of the English dialogue, a cast of American and British singers performed the opera. No superstars, but a few good voices, most notably tenor Matthew Polenzani as Belmonte. It's just a pity that he had to play the least interesting character in the opera!--Belmonte has lots to sing, but it gets dramatically inert. Mary Dunleavy, as the heroine Constanze, had really unpleasant high notes in her first aria, so instead of looking forward to her performance of the magnificent Act II aria "Martern aller Arten," I dreaded it. Though it turned out not to be as badly sung as I feared (and I liked her acting, which showed Constanze starting out unsure of herself but gaining in power as the aria progressed), I still don't think that this is an ideal role for her. In the role of Blonde, the soprano Anna Christy fared better: her voice is small but pleasant, and her sassy soubrette characterization charmed the audience.

The Pasha, a non-singing role, was performed by local actor Charles Shaw Robinson, who also failed to impress me. His speaking voice sounded gruff and hoarse, and he was saddled with most of the awkward thee-thou-thy dialogue. To my surprise, the audience spontaneously applauded the Pasha when he announced, at the end, that he would forgive the four lovers and not perpetuate the cycle of hatred. But then the final moment of the production tried to make us feel sorry for the Pasha, proposing that he genuinely loved Constanze but nobly renounced her--the wrong way to conclude an opera about silly antics in a Turkish harem, methinks.

*OK, my search revealed that Kuttner also writes supertitles for the SF Opera--but I'd argue that there's a big difference between writing supertitles (which need to convey the general meaning of an opera's libretto, but never need to be spoken aloud) and writing dialogue that will be performed.

Images from SF Opera. Top: Anna Christy, with "eunuchs." Bottom: Matthew Polenzani.

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