BWW Review: THE ABDUCTION FROM THE SERAGLIO at KC Lyric Opera
The premiere of a new opera season is always a welcome one, and likewise the production of a Mozart piece. So it was with particular anticipation this reviewer found herself at the Kauffman Center on Saturday night to hear the Lyric open their 2019-20 season with his Die Entführung aus dem Serail, or The Abduction from the Seraglio.
Set in 1940's Hollywood, the story concerns Belmonte (Ben Bliss, ten) who has traveled to a Turkish-themed nightclub called the "Seraglio" to rescue his beloved Konstanze (Kathryn Lewek, sopr) who is being held there against her will along with his friends Pedrillo (Joseph Leppek, ten) and Blonde (Rachele Gilmore, sopr). The crime boss "Pasha" Selim (Matthew J Williamson) keeps them under lock and key, hoping to win Konstanze's heart while his loyal (and overenthusiastically vicious guard) Osmin (Matt Boehler, bass) keeps his eye on prisoners and would-be rescuer alike, all too eager to spring into action should any put a foot wrong.
It might strike the casual observer as an odd setting for a lighthearted comic opera, but here we find it is very much a relic of its times. Not only in the manner in which the women are treated (picture a comedy about sex slavery today. Go on.), but in its faux-orientalism. Europe at the time was fascinated with Turkey and other "exotic" locations, and this story was selected at least partially in mind to capitalize on that. Other than that, it is very much your standard lighter Mozart piece, with the standard first & second couples, a wily servant, lots of strong melody work, and a happy ending. Actually, the ending itself feels rather pasted-on, and no doubt had more to do with pleasing Mozart's patron, Emperor Joseph II (it did not do to present monarchs in a bad light, even foreign ones).
The production is a lively one ,and while the translation from far eastern palace to 20th century nightclub inevitably has its hiccoughs, overall it's as smooth as you could hope it to be. The rotating set is very nice, and the performances are well done all around. Leppek's Pedrillo is comic without being overbearing, and Gilmore's Blonde is delightful (what is it with Mozart and his secondary characters?). Ms Lewek, as Konstanze, does most of the heavy lifting of the show, particularly her arias "Arch ich liebte" and "Welcher Wechsel herrscht". Note must be made of Boehler's Osmin, another comic character who manages to downplay the menace of the story.
And it is an odd story, when one steps back and looks at it. We can argue about different times and so on, but it is nevertheless rather disingenuous. Most of all the Pasha himself, flipping from principal villain to deus ex machina at the last possible minute. Opera fans will recall Rossini's Liitaliana in Algeri, with its similar themes and settings, but with what some may argue a superior story. But then, one reminds oneself, this is opera, where nobody comes for the plot. We're here for the music, and Mozart, who was just on the cusp of producing some of his greatest works ever, delivers magnificently.