Die Entführung aus dem Serail / Amsterdam 2008 / Aiken, Montvidas, et al. (1)

This production of Entführung from Amsterdam is Regietheater in the classic sense. Through Act III the set is gradually stripped away to nothing, and at the end the chorus reappear in street clothes, carrying the ‘orientalist’ costumes they had worn earlier. The production is telling us in no uncertain terms that this is theater about theater.

In some ways I suppose that Entführung almost has to be theater about theater. It is an eighteenth century representation of ‘the exotic Orient,’ and even the most conservative modern productions have to be aware that what they are staging is a representation of a representation. The opera is set in Turkey, but it’s an eighteenth-century European version of Turkey, which any production worth its salt has to deal with one some level. You can play it straight, but only at the risk of appearing to indulge without thinking in the same kind of cliches about Muslims and ‘the Orient’ that people in Europe did in Mozart’s day. (One solution that I have encountered is to play it so very straight that the audience is almost forced to wonder if you really mean it – which gets everyone to the same place, I guess.)

But this production goes in the opposite direction. Belmonte and Osmin first encounter one another in front of the stage curtain. Osmin has brought two auditorium seats with him (numbers 40 and 42, if memory serves). When the stage curtain is drawn back, we see a flat curtain with an image of a night-time cityscape. Selim’s palace is reminiscent of a nightclub – bright colored lights, a big curtain of gold spangles, and a cut-out of a famous orientalist painting of two girls dancing for a sultan, which I have seen before but can’t identify right now. Selim enters in ‘Turkish’ clothes but when he wants to talk to Konstanze (“immer noch traurig”) he takes them off, revealing a western shirt and trousers. Konstanze is also dressed in ‘Turkish’ clothes (Orientalist ‘Turkish’ rather than anything that a high-status woman at an early modern Turkish court would probably have really worn) but she eventually pulls off her wig, revealing a short modern hairstyle, and after this scene she appears in modern Western clothes. There is an implication that all the Turkish stuff is an act, or false. Which it is, in a sense. Kurt Rydl’s Osmin is of great asstance here – he plays the character, who is consistently in Turkish clothes, precisely the way he does in here in a much more traditional production, which serves only to underscore the point that the gestures at ‘the orient’ are intended to strike a deliberately awkward or off note.

The production seems to be implying that the Turkish aspects of this story can only ever be a way of talking about something else. Certainly the point is not to talk about Turkey or Islam or ‘east and west’ in any meaningful sense. At the same time, I noticed that some sections of the spoken dialogue have been rewritten, and these do include a detailed explanation by Pedrillo to Belmonte in Act I of what a ‘renegade’ is, i.e. Selim is a Christian convert to Islam.

So, what is this about?

To answer this question it’s probably necessary to start with Belmonte, who is presented here as one of opera’s Most Difficult to Love Boyfriends Ever. Here he is, at his entrance, before Osmin appears with the seats:

He is sweaty and nervous and the fact that he appears to be nowhere in particular despite having arrived there is, in fact, sort of key to the story.

[next part here.]