Die Entführung aus dem Serail, or, Men Who Hate Women

Martern aller Arten

I had a few extra days in Europe, so I decided to hop over to Berlin for Calixto Bieito’s production of Die Entführung aus dem Serail, which I’ve wanted to see for ages. If your reaction to this decision is not along the lines of “well, of course,” then continue reading with some caution.

For staging fundamentalists, this production and its supposed desecration of Mozartian purity have become a synecdoche for all of Regietheater. This is basically dumb: you can’t reduce so much diverse work by so many people to one production, and while I haven’t actually seen Calixto Bieito’s do-do list I doubt that “despoil our sacred cultural heritage” is the first thing on it. So I want to talk about this production, not its reputation. But before seeing it I assumed that none of its critics had actually seen the thing, since their litanies of complaints have the snapshot quality of description obtained through photos and others’ reviews rather than seeing an actual performance. But after seeing it myself, I’m not sure this is necessarily correct.

Mozart, Die Entführung aus dem Serail
. Komische Oper Berlin, 5/23/13. Production by Calixto Bieito (revival), conducted by Kristiina Poska with Claudia Boyle (Konstanze), Adrian Strooper (Belmonte), Jens Larsen (Osmin), Guntbert Warns (Selim), Louise Fribo (Blonde), Tansel Akzeybek (Pedrillo)

This is because it actually is really shocking, and disjunctive, and explicit! Like, pretty much all of it. Some of the photos below aren’t exactly safe for work but you shouldn’t need that warning. When you describe it with sentences like “and then during the introduction to ‘Marten aller Arten’ you see all the rooms of the bordello in business simultaneously,” you are just telling the truth and not really misrepresenting. And actually that’s just about the mildest way possible I could have phrased this because my mom reads my blog, just saying. When it comes to stage productions I’m usually the too cool for school type who refuses to be phased by anything but I found that ten minutes into this I was crossing my arms very tightly across my chest and basically couldn’t relax until the end. There’s no intermission, by the way, and it’s around two hours and fifteen minutes long.

 During the overture, we watch a beautiful, athletic woman do an acrobatic trapeze routine, but this is a feint: she’s only representing the false glitter of show business, and none of the female characters have this kind of strength or control. The setting eliminates the Turkish culture clash element, making everyone European (the alla turca remains in the music, and Bieito makes a lot of its gaudiness and maniacal repetitive energy). The setting is a bordello, of which Selim is the boss, Osmin the other employee, and Pedrillo the janitor–and Selim and Osmin also seem to be the main customers. But there doesn’t seem to be much of a world outside this brothel, and I suspect it’s supposed to represent society at large.

Most of the action consists of Osmin and Selim alternately abusing and hanging out with the various prostitutes of the bordello. Constanze is being held as a prisoner in a literal cage, and (as in the original libretto) refuses to cede any emotional connection with Selim. Belmonte is someone with no real sense of self except a misbegotten sense of romanticism (which prefers Costanze to be an idea than an actual person), and goes into very unconvincing drag to attempt to reach Constanze. When he gets into the bordello, that’s when things really start to get interesting.

The quartet plays out as a very problematic reunion: the men are genuinely suspicious of the women’s fidelity, and the women aren’t sure they even want these men back. As it turns out, they don’t. In a wild twist ending, the men shoot up the bordello indiscriminately, including most of the women, leaving the entire stage splattered with blood. Selim’s act of generosity is not killing Constanze, and she does eventually shoot him. But when it turns out that Belmonte’s rescue mission has not saved Constanze but merely installed him in Selim’s place, and despite Selim’s murder the only thing everyone can do is exalt his generosity. Constanze closes the opera by shooting herself.

The point seems to be that life for these women is enslavement either way—Belmonte isn’t much more than Selim with a few love letters, whose effect quickly wear off. There’s no escape for either Constanze or Blonde, which makes the ending fairly inevitable. It’s bleak, and depressing, but it’s also quite subtle. The portrayal of the relationship between Constanze and Selim in particular takes many unexpected turns, from loathing to a weird sort of attraction right back to hatred.

I’ve left out a lot of brutal detail, much of which is described in this review on Parterre. But for all these changes of setting and character, the majority of the spoken dialogue is, I believe, the original (unlike Stefan Herheim’s very different Entführung). Mozart’s music fits Bieito’s concept quite well: Constanze’s flights up into her extreme high register and her edgy coloratura are aptly tied to extreme psychological states, Osmin’s jumps around a wide range are played for physical effect. The only character whose music really doesn’t seem to work—though her text does—is Blonde (who is actually a brunette sometimes wearing a blonde wig), whose gentle and sweet arias are only worked into the concept with difficulty.

actually last week’s Spiegel

But that’s really the exception. Most of it is pretty damn faithful to the situation Mozart was portraying, stripped of the distancing effects of exoticism and a historical setting. The words about torture that fly by on digital signs are mostly from the actual libretto. Sure, the relationships onstage are more complex and less idealized than those of the libretto, but the music is, for the most part (pace most of Blonde), far more complex and multifaceted than that, and this is a production that gives that complexity dramatic purpose. It also asks why we–from the libretto’s original ending to every “traditional” staging today–are so so dedicated to sugar-coating this story (making it, effectively, the woman on the trapeze from the opening). Bieito seems to posit that any world where this story can happen is, for Constanze, not worth living in. (For critics this seems to slip into Bieito saying that Mozart’s Singspiel is not worth producing, which is not the same thing at all.)

Like La Cieca above, I feel like including a rundown of the singers is an awkward non sequitur, because this is a production that seems to subsume everyone into it. (Note: these photos show an earlier cast.) But, on the other hand, it wouldn’t have happened without them. The tempos sometimes pushed their technique beyond its limits. The strain didn’t superhuman transcendence recorded by others at this production (OQ subscribers only, sorry) but the frantic effort expended seemed quite appropriate for this production. Overall this cast was somewhat less inspired and demented that the average Bieito gang–but it is the nth revival of a no longer new production, and I can’t imagine they rehearsed too much and, I strongly doubt they worked with Bieito himself.

But I’m sorry to start with so many qualifications, because I think overall it was a very good performance. Claudia Boyle has the slim, clear timbre for Constanze, as well as the stamina and exceptional intensity, and her high register is reliable and on pitch. Adrian Strooper’s tenor is a bit dry but he navigated the music smoothly and easily. Tansel Akzeybek was a solid Pedrillo, and Louise Fribo fine as Blonde. Jens Larsen and Guntbert Warns, as Osmin and Selim respectively, bore the brunt of the stage action and were the most committed members of the cast, and Larsen is an excellent singer as well, with the vast range demanded by this role. Kristiina Poska’s conducting was good if sometimes a bit caffeinated, and I thought it was actually very poignant that a woman should conduct this production, for obvious reasons.

I can’t say this is going to go on my list of best performances very quickly. It’s more than a little brutal to watch, both because of the bleakness and the violence, and I did not find it in the least bit cathartic. (I don’t think it’s intended to be.) I looked around a bit at what other people have written about this production, and I was interested to see that with the exception of the inimitable Heather MacDonald I couldn’t find any women writing about this subject at all. Given the demographics of music writing this is not surprising, but I’m still curious if it makes a difference.

For the author linked above watching “Martern aller arten” was about observation and gaze, about creating a relationship between stage and audience. Bu I ended up putting myself Constanze’s subject position at least some of the time. She is, after all, a woman having an extreme reaction to a violent act that she is witnessing. I don’t think he ever takes this step of identification. For me the mirror aspect made it unavoidable, and actually the production’s equal (if not greater) weight on the women’s perspectives is one of its most remarkable aspects. It resists and questions the relationship established by the spectatorship which seems to linger in the subtext of that particular description.

And that identification aspect is what makes this staging such strong stuff, I think. It’s shocking and awful, but is all too obviously both portraying the modern world and closely aligned with the original text. And if you are going to deny that I have to ask why.

Photos copyright Monika Rittershaus


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  1. Bieito and his ilk need to be hung by their testicles upside and forced to watch a year long rerun of Gilligan's Island.

    Whaddaya say Miss Zerbinetta??!!!


  2. "…It resists and questions the relationship established by the spectatorship which seems to linger in the subtext of that particular description."

    That sentence –structure, grammar, cadence — is probably more violent and offensive than anything in the production.

  3. Oops, I forgot to write to please you. How about that.

    (I get the occasional comments like these, which I don't post because I want to have an actual discussion here if possible. But I've never gotten two in under 12 hours on a single post. Do I think this is a coincidence? I do not!)

    (Also a potential difference between men and women and this production: do you think men would be getting these comments?)

  4. An excellent review about a production that I have wanted to see for ages (I can imagine some of the comments you'd be getting). Bieito's productions always seem to bring about controversy, yet, to me at least, he always manages to bring a brilliant new perspective on an opera without actually deviating from what's written in the score and libretto. This production sounds fascinating.

  5. I wish there were more women directors (regie & non) who can grapple with questions like these on stage. Until then, we will have to analyze chiefly male directors' take on female gender in the operatic canon, and male critics' response (of outrage or approval) to those.

    But one note about this production. I understand where CB is coming from, and can find many points of agreement with this interpretation. What I notice however (based on reading the reviews–I have not seen the production so will have to trust the reviewers' descriptions) is a certain streak of puritanism… a sort of a philosophy of gender that presumes that once the woman's been sexually despoiled, something in her very essence is destroyed.

    You sometimes spot this argument in writings about rape (and here we have repeated rape — sexual slavery, trafficking). Once you've been raped, the argument goes, you remain forever victimized. The wound is so permanent and fundamental that woman's psyche never recovers. It touches the essence of her. (Her sexual purity? I'd ask.)

    So we have at the end Kostanze who, even though an exit is opening before her, decides she'd rather die. For CB to suggest, to decide for this particular woman here that death is better than being marked by rape — that is what I would question.

    As for the general tenor of the production, I think it's pretty spot on. To make The Abduction today pretending that it's not about sexual slavery would be laughable.

  6. I didn't know what to expect before my first two Bieito productions last month, Hollander and Parsifal in Stuttgart. Beyond all the expected gratuitous nastiness, which the audience either took in stride or laughed at, what struck me most forcefully was a strong feminist underpinning. Bieito's over-the-top depictions of institutionalized discrimination and brutality against women come off as parodistic. And it's Kundry who is left standing at the end of B's post-apolyptic Parsifal. Entführung sounds several degrees more harsh, but in the same line of thinking.

  7. Thanks for the description of how Bieito's production engages with Mozart's music: I was curious about this, and I think it tends to get a bit lost in reports that get caught up in violent/disturbing details. I often come away from Mozart productions thinking about all the things in the music that the production left unexplored, so it's great to hear that this production does musical exploring.

    DTO's points are good ones; I was also reflecting on the challenges of engaging questions of gaze and subjectivity for any director. If Bieito's brothel is (at least partly) a microcosm of society, I was wondering if Belmonte's invasion (including the unconvincing drag) might be read as an effort to liberate Constanze from Sexual Exploitation by helping/forcing her to embrace Virtuous [Chaste/Submissive] Womanhood. Might this, then, be what she's rejecting? Not sure that makes her suicide less problematic; just a thought.

    On another note, I heard Strooper as Tamino here a few seasons ago, and am glad to hear that he's still doing stylish Mozart.

  8. Thanks for that. It's one of the best pieces of opera criticism I've read in ages. I hope they revive this production when I'm in Berlin next year.

    I've learned that there certain subjects one can write about that will produce the same response from certain quarters almost irrespective of what one has to say. Bieito is one. Curiously, Joan Sutherland is another.

  9. I think Def brings up a really important point. There has been a recent, supposedly excellent, production of this opera by a woman, Helen Malkowsky at the Wiener Volksoper, but I haven't seen it. (see http://vonheuteaufmorgen.blogspot.com/2012/05/die-entfuhrung-eines-konzepts.html )

    But I also don't think that Bieito was subscribing to the purity thing, either. Constanze doesn't shoot herself because she has been defiled, she shoots herself because even after she gets to shoot her former captor they're still exalting him.

  10. Well, we've had this sort of discussion before, and no doubt will again.

    For me, it all stems from opera's status as a hybrid art form. There's an irresolvable tension between its various elements, as evidenced by the 400 year long dispute about the relative importance of words and
    music and theatrical production, along with the periodic efforts of artists–Gluck, Wagner, etc.–to reform what they see as the excesses
    and imbalances of the previous generation. The advent of opera on film and video has only further complicated the issue.

    I think the best course is to embrace this inescapable tension, along with the differing viewpoints it engenders. I'm not claiming that any one approach is correct. I'm just suggesting that the mixed nature of
    the art form almost guarantees widely divergent perspectives.

  11. "And it's Kundry who is left standing at the end of B's post-apolyptic Parsifal."

    Well, there's a curious thing. In fact, Bieito's Parsifal leaves more of the cast alive than just about any other version: the murdered Titurel and the sacrificed (?) Amfortas both spring casually back to life, and Kundry presumably ends her cycle of reincarnation by living out a "normal" lifespan instead of dying immediately. (Well, yes, there's a lot of mortality among the Blumenmädchen, including the one Parsifal slaughters, but it's hard to believe they're quite alive in the first place, so heavily freighted are they with zombie signifiers.)

    I think possibly the extreme violence and sexual depictions in the Bieito shows has another function besides the purely aesthetic: maybe the point is to push the performers beyond the limits of what they first think they can do onstage. By forcing the singers to exceed their accustomed and habitual restrain, Bieito seems to unlock something primal and very powerful in the artists. (It doesn't always work, as his "Camino Real" in Chicago demonstrated, but when it does, it's really revelatory.)

  12. As a gently reared female, I find it difficult to even contemplate voluntarily subjecting myself to watching repulsive scenes such as are described. On the other hand, I know that my relative innocence and lack of daily affront by similar is a matter of sheer good luck in where and to whom I was born. And some choices I made along the way, too. I also know that I was subjected, in growing up, to a good deal of sentimental nonsense that still informs my views of the world. It of course is in part why I find 19th century opera so appealing, because it's so unrealistic much of the time.

    My objection to Constanze killing herself is that despite not giving in to sentimental temptation in prior scenes, she's at the end reacting in the old-fashioned way, leaving this world rather than leaving slavery and corruption behind and walking out to create a new and better world. Of course it may be Bieito's view that this depraved and disgusting world is all we've got, forever. The old boss and the new boss, the same. I'd like to believe that humankind can possibly improve. But then, I was raised in the comfortable bubble of protection that allowed me to be an optimist.


  13. Lily, I really like your comment. Traurigkeit has never really been mir zu Lose either, at least not in this sense. I think this is intended as a brutal sort of consciousness-raising, a counterweight to the pernicious sentimentality that we get almost everywhere else. Unreality can conceal a lot of ideology.

    I would like a hopeful activist end for Constanze too! But Bieito is a real pessimist, and very skeptical of the heroic force of the individual. In the face of the systemic brutality he portrays here, I think it would ring hollow, anyway. (Interesting, he gave Amneris a heroic last stand in his Aida–trying to save Aida and Radames–which I loved. But of course she eventually got shot and sang her last lines as she was dying, meaning that there wasn't really any pace at all.)

    La Cieca, thanks a lot for the clarification on Parsifal, which I still haven't seen (and would like to–it was on at the same time as this one but given the choice I picked a weekend in Berlin over one in Stuttgart).

  14. I really like Lily's comments, too. It seems that Bieito may have accomplished something with this production with regard to consciousness raising.

    I work with the not-so-gently reared folk on a daily basis, in hopes that they and myself can make a more decent life, at least according to my values and hopefully theirs too.

    Their world experiences and world views are hopelessly despairing at times, but within the context of this kind of life there is always a great deal of it that is to be honored and elevated, even perhaps to an art form.

    I have not seen Bieito's production, but I have read enough to understand that Bieito is trying to picture a segment of this world "as is," that is, the idea that this stuff does, indeed, happen. Can we make it art? That said, I do not necessarily see his work as a "naturalist" or "realist" production per se, but as referenced earlier, perhaps the work is a"symbol" of the world at large, and by that I assume you mean our world is a brothel and within this world perhaps the best thing to do is to commit suicide, or not, which only we the audience can answer.

    I think what makes this work most interesting is that I don't really believe Bieito is trying to necessarily make a judgment on the brutality and despair he is depicting. With reference to the above comments about "walking out" to "create a better world" it is OK for us to view this final act of suicide as relevant in that we may honor it for what it is with respect to the rest of piece. Rather than formulating a treatment plan for Konstanze in our minds, (I am not saying that suicide is "clinically" appropriate as a value per se) but that along with Mozart's music on the page, so is Bieito's act of creation on the stage.

    An enlightening review and discussion, Ms. Zerbinetta. Thank you for the opportunity to put down my thoughts whether they make sense or not.

  15. Jens Larsen was in the original cast, so Zerbinetta correctly sensed his strong identification with the proceedings.