Picnic in the Harem, or, Die Entführung aus dem Serail at Glyndebourne


My trip to the UK has been a weird crash course in postcolonial studies. First I saw Lakmé, a veritable celebration of British colonialism, in posh Holland Park, at an opera house whose tickets contain a note about where to position your pre-opera picnic. Then I went to Glyndebourne, an elaborate imperial picnic venue which also happens to perform opera. And there I saw, of all things, Die Entführung aus dem Serail, an older and less Britain-centric exotic relic, but, still. (Then there was Guillaume Tell, which was less site specific.)

Rest assured that I did not plan this–but, since the other operas on at present include Falstaff and Aida, I likely would have ended up in the same place even if my choices had been somewhat different.

Anyway, I arrived in Glyndebourne with my friend and our picnic and I enjoyed the gardens and sheep and the fancy dresses of everyone else who was out in rural England for opera in the middle of a Thursday afternoon. It really is a beautiful and relaxing setting. I don’t think that Calixto Bieito’s Entführung (an example I use altogether too frequently but what else would work here?) would be at home. It’s not that provocation and leisure are incompatible, and the Glyndebourne model in fact offers ample time for reflection. But, on another level, how pleasant does your sex slavery Singspiel have to be for it to go with your picnic?

Die Entführung aus dem Serail. Glyndebourne Festival, 7/16/2015. New production directed by David McVicar and conducted by Robin Ticciati with Sally Matthews (Konstanze), Edgardas Montvidas (Belmonte), Tobias Kehrer (Osmin), Brenden Gunnell (Pedrillo), Mari Eriksmoen (Blonde), Franck Saurel (Pasha Selim)

(Note: Until July 26 you can watch a streaming video of this production here. It was filmed on July 19, the performance after the one I saw.)

Enter director David McVicar, whose production pulls off a neat balancing act. I wrote quite a bit about his style apropos his Met Cav/Pag last April. I’m happy to say that this Entführung represents his work at its best. The setting is utterly traditional and it follows the story you expect. But this is a model of what an intelligent conservative production can be. The characters are remarkably complex and the balance between the comic and the serious is thoughtful and effective. Even with some weak casting in major roles, it works. It makes you think, it makes you laugh, and you can still have your picnic.

Vicki Mortimer’s elegant set uses the eighteenth-century model of alternating shallow and deep sets, with the sections partitioned by filigreed wooden screens and stone walls.The costumes are in similarly neutral tones until the ladies dress up in more colorful Turkish outfits for their escape. Pasha Selim’s house is, apparently, on the coast and in the middle of a busy city. This is McVicar’s biggest departure from the Singspiel text–the original has the Pasha at his country house. While the Pasha has some flunkies, he is exalted by a chorus of citizens rather than, as the text has it, only Janissaries. This might seem like a slight change–I suspect few people noticed it at all–but it means that the Turkish society represented onstage is significantly less militarized and features a wider range of characters.

a lot of semi-self-conscious comic schtick right from the start (Osmin
appears at a sequence of upstairs windows to sing each verse of his
section of the duet with Belmonte), which later escalates into
full-fledged physical comedy. Thanks to the cast’s comic timing it is
actually genuinely funny, with a particular highlight being the
affections of Pedrillo and Blonde in “Welche Wonne, welche Lust.” A food
fight between Blonde and Osmin starts funny but ends up a little over
the top. The serious work falls mostly to Pasha Selim and Konstanze.
Their relationship develops more than I’ve usually seen–he starts off
rather friendlier, she starts off more amenable to his proposals, then
things become increasingly hostile, eventually leading to a conflicted
but violently physical “Martern aller Arten.”

Act 2 finale

Despite breaking relatively little new ground, McVicar doesn’t focus on reproducing exotic clichés and instead lets the drama and comedy come out of the situation and characters. (The staging of the Act 2 finale is particularly nuanced.) There are, however, some caveats. He has kept an unusually large amount of the spoken dialogue–lots more than you usually get. This becomes something of a liability. While the cast does great work with their characters, they aren’t spoken-word actors and their delivery of spoken German (with only one native speaker in the cast) lacks nuance. There’s a lot more yelling than there should be. And while the pacing is better than it has any right to be in a show this long, it still drags at times.

The cast works together well but vocally it was somewhat disappointing. Belmonte emerged as a somewhat ineffective and suspicious lover, presumably by design. But Edgardas Montvidas seemed miscast. While his thick, somewhat swallowed lyric tenor had moments of rich tone, his style is more Puccini than Mozart. He struggled to navigate the coloratura and his German was hopelessly incomprehensible. Sally Matthews’s voice is hooty in the middle and somewhat shrill at the top. She is musically tasteful and got through her three arias, but I can’t say a whole lot more for her singing than that. Acting-wise, however, she is smart and attentive. As Pasha Selim, Franck Saurel was hammy but had sufficient dramatic stature, conveying both menace and compassion.

The supporting roles were much better sung. I heard Mari Eriksmoen’s breakthrough Zerbinetta years ago and wasn’t terribly impressed, but as Blonde she is perfect, with a focused, high soprano and spunky soubrette personality. Her ski jump to the top notes of “Durch Zärtlichkeit und Schmeicheln” wasn’t very smooth but otherwise she sounded excellent. Her counterpart Brenden Gunnell as Pedrillo seemed to be channeling James Corden in “One Man, Two Guvnors” and was exuberantly funny.

The cast’s standout, however, was Tobias Kehrer as Osmin. He had a linguistic advantage, but also  a big, booming, impressive voice. He can actually get sound out on the extreme lows of the role, makes a lot of the words, and his comic chops suggest he will one day be a great Baron Ochs. (One always, always needs more of those.)

I haven’t always been the biggest fan of Robin Ticciati’s conducting but found his work here fine if conventional. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment sounded rather more like a modern, non-HIP group than usual, particularly in the string sections, but I appreciated the lightness in the fast passages and the gentle tone of the period flutes. Vocal ornamentation was present but relatively sparing. In one odd touch, we got a stage music rendition of Mozart’s wind serenade (K.361) at the Pasha’s entrance. Presumably it implied that this is the music he listens to, but it was unfortunate to demote it to underscoring.

I admit that this is not the kind of production I find most exciting (particularly considering the work in question), but it was nonetheless perfectly calibrated for its setting and much more interesting than I expected. Yet its strengths–the dramatic details and collaboration of the cast–are not easily transferable to a huge opera house without such a generous rehearsal period. Indeed, McVicar’s results there have been, as you are probably aware, inconsistent. So I guess you should start packing your picnic.

Streaming video is, again, here until July 26.

More photos (all copyright Richard Hubert Smith):







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