Opera Company of Philadelphia's 'Abduction' strong but lacking

In a scene from the Opera Company of Philadelphia's production of the Mozart comedy"The AbductionFrom the Seraglio," tenors Antonio Lozano (left)and Krystian Adam deliver pleas on bended knee to sopranos Elizabeth Zharoff (left)and Elizabeth Reiter.
In a scene from the Opera Company of Philadelphia's production of the Mozart comedy"The AbductionFrom the Seraglio," tenors Antonio Lozano (left)and Krystian Adam deliver pleas on bended knee to sopranos Elizabeth Zharoff (left)and Elizabeth Reiter. (Kelly & Massa Photography)
Posted: February 21, 2012

How can an opera production look so fun yet feel so distant? So it was with the Opera Company of Philadelphia's handsome, technologically elaborate, and largely well-sung production of The Abduction From the Seraglio, which attempted to restore Mozart's frothiest operatic work to the comedic status that it must have occupied when written more than 200 years ago.

Reset in World War I-era Istanbul, the opera unfolded amid graceful arches and flickering, black-and-white silent-film footage on the Academy of Music stage, first giving the production and cast credits and then setting the scene for the opera's rescue plot about women escaping from the harem of the powerful Bassa Selim. But did the effort serve the opera? Was the opera worth serving?

Many operas arise from antiquated dramaturgy, but often character types and plot contrivances have somehow echoed into our own time. But singspiels - the operetta-like form that spawned Abduction - seem long buried, leaving us to puzzle over a number of odd features. The pivotal Selim character doesn't sing at all. Some arias have long orchestral introductions that stage directors rarely know how to handle. Then there's the eternal bugaboo - spoken dialogue that needs to be heard in a large, unamplified house and usually inspires cloyingly artificial delivery.

Conceptually, the production couldn't have been stronger. The film footage worked beautifully. Costumes were sumptuous and color-coordinated. A platform built around the orchestra allowed singers to have closer contact with the audience. Yet it was all about atmosphere with too little characterization. Stage director Robert B. Driver is best with character-based comedy, but seemed to lose his compass with the sillier, hyper-animated manner of this Abduction production. It played like children's theater. Staging problems were solved by adding some harem girls, who, in fact, dispersed rather than focused the opera's fragile narrative. Elaborate headgear made sure facial features couldn't be read and caricatures would be maintained. Even when singers were physically closer to their listeners, there seemed to be nothing for them to confide. As good as the singing mostly was, nobody commanded his or her role.

And they needed commanding. Though the characters are all one-dimensional types - two romantic couples, one comic, one serious, plus a nemesis or two - they require personalities, almost like modern cabaret performers. As humble as singspiel supposedly was, virtuosic singers had to have been at hand, given what stratospheric coloratura Mozart wrote for several characters, or subterranean low notes for the character of Osmin.

As Konstanze, Elizabeth Zharoff had touching vocal moments with her aria "Traurigkeit ward mir zum Lose." As Blonde, Elizabeth Reiter managed some sexy comic turns. But both only kept up with the elaborate writing rather than delivering a vocal knockout. Antonio Lozano as Belmonte and Krystian Adam as Pedrillo were vocally pleasing but, for all their physicality, didn't use the music to tell you who they were. As Osmin, Per Bach Nissen had enough comic business to fill his scenes, but like so much in this production, the humor lacked the solid spine that can come from a central characterization.

My happiest Abduction encounters (which obviously didn't include Sunday's matinee) have been in English-language productions in smaller theaters in which neither voices nor humor needed to be pushed in order to communicate. At least the orchestra was in fine form, even though I didn't sense that conductor Corrado Rovaris has any burning affection for this opera.

The Abduction From the Seraglio

Music: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Libretto: Christoph Friedrich Bretzner. Directed by Robert B. Driver, set designed by Guia Buzzi, and video design by Lorenzo Curone.

Belmonte . . . Antonio Lozano

Konstanze . . . Elizabeth Zharoff

Osmin . . . Per Bach Nissen

Bassa Selim . . . Peter Dolder

Pedrillo . . . Krystian Adam

Blonde . . . Elizabeth Reiter

Opera Company of Philadelphia Chorus and Orchestra, Corrado Rovaris conducting.

7:30 p.m. Wednesday,

8 p.m. Friday, and 2:30 p.m. Sunday at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets.

Tickets: $8-$225. 215-893-1018 or www.operaphila.org.

Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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