Die Entführung aus dem Serail / Hartelius, Klink, et al. / Festival d’Aix-en-Provence 2004 (2)

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This production is intended to be humorous. I think. There are the aforementioned loathsome buffa persons, for one thing. And there are various little gags that have a tendency to fall flat, e.g. when it’s midnight in Act II and the men are waiting for the women Pedrillo brings out a tiny little piano and plays the sound of a clock chiming the hour. I’m not sure whether the audience was supposed to laugh, but they don’t. I didn’t.

In general there seems to be a desire to force the drama to be quite light, or undercut the moments that are more serious. For example, when Belmonte and Konstanze are reunited at the end of Act II, you see Pedrillo and Blonde mimicking their gestures. And the main pair’s gestures here are a little silly. This is not the only moment of silly or deliberately over-wrought stage direction, either – later, for example, when Konstanze says she cannot bear the thought of what might happen to her tomorrow she puts her hands over her eyes in an exaggerated way. The intention seems to be to force us to watch the thing from a distance, to make the story seem a little bit far away and stylied, like a fairy story or something performed with puppets.

I should also mention the little kid, who appears during the overture, climbs up the tower to free two birds from inside it, and then runs over and wakes up Belmonte, who is asleep on the stage, and then takes Belmonte’s hat. The kid later reappears to scamper about and follow Selim around and hug a Pasha doll, which the four main characters then proceed to pass around during the quartet at the end of Act II.

The cumulative effect of all these various details is a sense that this is supposed to be dreamlike, or playful, or garish and funny but not really, or – I actually really don’t know. The production has this weird unevenness of tone. I cannot for the life of me make out what this is supposed to be about. It’s referencing traditional productions, with the type of costumes everyone (including the orchestra! they get turbans!) wears. The little kid and the pasha doll suggest a children’s fairy story or adventure story quality (which I think makes perfect sense for this opera. Also, did you ever read the Chronicles of Narnia as a child? Remember C.S. Lewis’s offensively stereotyped cartoon “Arabs”, the Calormen? And do you remember the illustrations, by Pauline Baynes? The Pasha looks like a Baynsian Calormen guy. Just for clarity, the resemblance is purely visual.) But at the same time, there’s no sustained dreamlike or fairy-story-like feel to the thing – there are too many gags that are of a different tone, in terms of the humor. It’s not political, either, in the THIS IS ABOUT EAST AND WEST way that some productions of this opera are. I truly can’t get a read on it – the various pieces don’t quite come together.

I am about to say something slightly weird, but I think it’s true – I am not sure what is going on with this production, but whatever it is, Matthias Klink’s performance of Belmonte is perfectly of a piece with it. This is a good thing, because whatever it is he’s doing, it makes sense. I am not sure what the sense is, but it’s a sense, and he sounds nice, and he is not upstaged by his lapels, which given what he is wearing is no mean feat. Belmonte’s “Hier soll ich dich denn sehen” in Act I had some really nice moments of phrasing at the various repetitions of “bringe mich ans Ziel,” and “Konstanze! Dich wieder zu sehen” made me realize that this little aria is more complex than I remembered.

And then there is Malin Hartelius as Konstanze, who I just recently watched perform this role pretty much amazingly but who here reveals the limitations that an off production can place on a really good performer.

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