[part one here.]
This production has a way of leading you away from the opera, to the point where it is often a little startling when the opera reappears. The beginning of Act II is perhaps the best example of this. The act begins with a burst of ululation — I think that’s what it’s supposed to be — from some of the actors, who are veiled in white, and then the scene moves into a sequence of more ney and percussion music and some dancing. A young woman in a fatigue jacket throws the blue book Selim had earlier into the fountain in anger. One of the others fishes it out again. Selim gives a reading of either poetry or philosophy from a different book that he carries about with him, and the sense is again that there is a story unfolding here quite independent of the one we are used to following in the opera.
Konstanze is led in by some of the other women, who encourage her to join the dancing. She does, although with a certain amount of reserve – she is friendly with these women, but she’s not really part of the group. And then in dashes Blonde (Malin Hartelius) in a halter top and cut-offs. Hartelius gets a chance to show off her dance moves – Blonde is immediately the center of attention and clearly having great fun. And then Osmin storms in and when the dialogue in German begins before “Durch Zärtlichkeit und Schmeicheln” it’s actually fairly startling.
Much the same thing happens during Pedrillo’s serenade in Act III – one wonders what this song is even doing in this setting, rather than why this setting has been chosen for this music. Which I suppose is the point of the production, to ask that very question. What is this music doing intruding on this setting? The production suggests that this opera itself is a form of colonialism or orientalism. It does not belong here.
Which I suppose is fine, in the abstract. But it has some peculiar practical consequences, most of which can be included under the umbrella of the story not making a whole hell of a lot of sense. The production has lifted a set of eighteenth-century relationships and dropped them into the middle east in the 1990s. “Martern aller Arten,” for example, seems bizarrely out of context. I mean, yes, people in the modern middle east are tortured, but the emotional set up of torture in the opera is not about geopolitics, terrorism or extraordinary rendition, which are the most common modern contexts for torture. (Isn’t it funny how you can say “extraordinary rendition” in an operatic context and normally it’s about someone singing some specific thing really well, as in “that was an extraordinary rendition of Martern aller Arten!” but in this setting the phrase is more likely to evoke CIA airplanes and hidden military bases?) It’s precisely the surface similarity — torture! the middle east! — that makes the very real underlying disjuncture so startling. Once again, this aria does not really belong in the setting the production has created.
In addition, they have poor Schäfer running about all over the place while she sings it, which makes it sound sort of disjointed: the aria never quite gathers the emotional force it might in another setting.
I can imagine someone making the argument that the weird disjuncture I just described is precisely the point, that you can’t have “sexy early modern orientalist intimations of torture” in an opera and not deal with the fact that this is a real thing that is not at all sexy and which has consequences in the modern world. However. I am not sure what the point is of forcing this opera to say that. I mean, it will say it. Operas will say nearly anything under the right kind of pressure. But this does not mean it is a good idea to make them.
In fact, I think there is a false equivalence being made here. Mozart’s opera was an eighteenth century story about a meeting of Europeans and ‘the East.’ There are still Europeans, and the middle east has certainly not gone anywhere. But over two hundred years have passed meanwhile – it’s not immediately obvious to me that a story about eighteenth-century Europeans and Turks is going to translate in any readily meaningful way into a story about modern people who happen to live in those same places.