Review; Abduction from the Seraglio

The Canadian Opera Company has launched a revival performance of Mozart’s Abduction on the Seralio, or as rendered in German, Die Entfürung aus dem Serail.

Ever a problematic text for its exoticism, Wajdi Mouawad, who first conceived of the revival, has reworked the dialogue of Mozart’s singspiel to deal in nuanced fashion with the complexities of race and exoticism that colour the source. The only problem is that adding nuance to this operatic soufflé is a bit like rewriting a Gilbert & Sullivan opera to be subtle.

In any case, an attentive reading of Mozart’s Die Entfürung aus dem Serail finds the Pasha, far from the stereotyped Muslim Mouawad fears, to be the most nuanced character in the piece, forgoing vengeance for mercy. If Osmin, his attendant, and narrative foil, is more archetypal, at least he’s in good company. Osmin is to Serail what Monastres was to The Magic Flute. Except, of course, where Osmin is Islamic, Monastres is black.

Undeniably this is problematic, and there is conversation to be had about how we now depict these characters. Typically the Monastres quandary is eliminated by lifting the racially offensive dialogue from the translation. One is left to wonder why a similar approach couldn’t have worked here. Instead we get an extra hour’s worth of dialogue, often didactic after a fashion to make Maria Edgeworth look nuanced, or indeed Gilbert & Sullivan subtle.

Didacticism aside, the new text sits uneasily with the music, as playful Pedrillo is rendered earnest and angry, Konstanze is genuinely torn between her suitors, and Blonde seems really in love with Osmin. It’s undoubtably an interesting premise, and it opens an interesting conversation about perceptions of East and West. What it isn’t is Mozart’s Seralio, a comedic romp through the nonsensical and convoluted —except in music.

And in this regard the singers shine. If Owen McCausland struggles to turn comedic music serious, he blossoms when allowed honest-to-goodness levity, and is technically a joy to listen too. Jane Archibald, singing Konstanze, acquits herself with aplomb and a ringing, stratospheric top. Claire de Sévigné Blonde isn’t quite so deft, but she floats the top of her voice in lovely fashion, while Mauro Peter dives into the role of Bellemonte with enviable ease, making every note seem effortless.

If only it weren’t enmeshed in a retelling that doesn’t fit. We’d have loved to have seen this lunatic rollick through the Ottaman Empire at its nonsensical best —we’re confident this cast would have carried it with zest and sparkle. Alas, it was not to be. We said earlier Serail was an operatic soufflé. Like any good soufflé, it collapses under the pressure of weighty issues and earnestness. Thank goodness for the music. Sublime it might be, but it knows better than to take itself seriously. There is, after all, merit in the musical soufflé. Just ask messers Gilbert & Sullivan.

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