Die Entführung aus dem Serail / Schäfer, Hartelius et al. / Salzburg 1997 (1)

You know how sometimes familiarity with a given opera can make an unusual production of it seem like something hurled in out of left field? Well, this production has a way of making the opera seem like something hurled in out of left field. This is a rather extraordinary achievement on the part of the production designers and director. Whether it is a good idea or not is another question.

The last time I talked about Entführung I mentioned barbed wire. I probably should not have done this, because what do I get this time? Barbed wire.

Yes, it’s one of those Entführungs. However. I think the best way to get at this particular production is to begin from the assumption that it is entirely reasonable to stage a modern-dress, politically-tinged version of Die Entführung aus dem Serail and expect it to hang together. The question then becomes not what do you think of this type of concept in general, but rather does this particular version of the concept work.

No one ever mentions Turkey in this version of the libretto. Osmin reminds Blonde in the beginning of Act II that they are in “the Orient” but it gets no more specific than that. And there is a reason for this.

The key move that the staging makes is to alter the boundaries of the story. Normally this is a story about two Europeans and their servants who have an adventure in the Exotic East. The story is about them, and the Exotic East and the people who live there are the backdrop for things happening mainly to our Spanish (and English, as Blonde would remind us) heroes. This production undercuts this assumption. When Selim first appears, he is followed by a small retinue of women in suits and he is wielding a book in triumph. The book contains a map on which borders have been redrawn. He has had some kind of political success, and shares hugs with members of his court. Throughout the production there are references to this, and to the fact that things are happening at this court that are not necessarily focused on Konstanze and her fellow captives. The point is that there are stories about the middle east that do not center on Europeans, which is an entirely reasonable thing to point out.

And this is done with music, not just with staging. (Here I am going to lodge a complaint against whoever produced this DVD. If you are going to make a DVD of Entführung that contains extra music and extra musicians and also readings from other texts in languages in addition to German would it kill you to include a booklet?) There is additional music performed on a ney and percussion in several places, for example after “ach, ich liebte” and between “Nie werd’ ich deine Huld verkennen” and the final “long live the Pasha” chorus.

Here is “ach, ich liebte” both for the sake of the ney, which appears at 6.50, and for the sake of Christine Schäfer. Many sopranos can sound sort of bright and hard at the topmost notes of this aria, but Schäfer’s voice just sounds silky the whole way through. There are a few notes in the first few bars of this (at the first syllable of the first “glücklich”) that are slightly different from what I’m used to, but it’s a tiny difference and I don’t think it matters.

So, rather than an orientalist tale about the Exotic East, we have the Exotic East colonizing Mozart, so to speak. Fine with me. But does it make any difference?

(Next part here.)