As Houston Grand Opera winds up its 2016–2017 season, Wagnerians everywhere are flocking to catch the final installment in its progressing Ring Cycle (reviewed by the author for another publication). But for the weary operagoer seeking relief from five hours of Götterdämmerung, the end of the season in America’s fourth largest city also includes Mozart’s delightful comedy.
Current cultural sensibilities have problematized The Abduction from the Seraglio. At times the opera pits East versus West in way that would win the approval of Samuel Huntington and the scorn of Edward Said. Their academic acolytes have churned out dreary studies and glum commentary about how Mozart’s work—adapted without authorization from a play by Christoph Friedrich Bretzner—either illustrates or perpetuates the divisions of our troubled world. The Turkish Pasha Selim has abducted a brace of English lasses—Konstanze and her servant Blonde—who must be rescued by their amours Belmonte and Pedrillo. Employing a range of ruses, they infiltrate his house, outwit his guard Osmin, and nearly free the girls before being apprehended. Learning that Belmonte is the son of his enemy and the man who drove him to a life outside the law, Selim mercifully allows all to go free. A melodic chorus praises his gracious behavior, ending the work on a relieving note of toleration. Depending on how the action is portrayed, the opera’s scenes can appear to mock and demean Islam, patronize peoples of the East, and even make tolerance itself seem an insultingly facile solution to the world’s problems.
Dwelling on the identity politics of the opera as they relate to the current world does little more than ruin an enjoyable outing to the theater. Houston’s revival production, by James Robinson, sidesteps this deficiency by moving the action from the rough-and-tumble sixteenth-century Mediterranean world—where piracy and slavery were common—to the Orient Express in the 1930s. In addition to that stylish decade’s glorious accoutrements, relocating the action to the historic train allows the characters and action to move easily between East and West, to show that the values of the piece are indeed universal and transcend confessional divides. Indeed, the famous “Janissary Chorus” that praises Pasha Selim twice in the opera is performed first by the choristers in Turkish costumes and later, when Selim arrives at the end of his journey, in French costumes: very different peoples thus warmly praise the merciful potentate in literally the very same words. As for his own dress, Selim looks and behaves very much like a European—or at least a Europeanized—gentleman. His guard Osmin does sport the traditional fez but his habits and attitudes hardly alienate him from the rest of the cast. The message, then, is not a bland and perfunctory appeal to tolerance, but a clear statement that the human dramas so deeply at work in Mozart can transcend culture, religion, and geography.
Houston assembled an excellent young cast to staff the production. Lawrence Brownlee has suffered from a reputation as the lyric tenor one hires when Juan Diego Florez is unavailable. But here his warm, sunny voice luxuriated in the role of Belmonte in what was probably the finest performance I have ever heard him deliver. As a star singer (he was named Male Singer of the Year at the International Opera Awards on May 7), Brownlee has certainly come into his own. As his amour Konstanze, the Russian bravura soprano Albina Shagimuratova, has also come a long way—from what used to be shrill and undisciplined high notes to a cheerfully full and well-supported technique that allowed for aurally stunning ascents. Relative newcomer Ryan Speedo Green’s Osmin likewise tackled Mozart’s vocal challenges with deft exuberance, reaching way down into the lower bass register without sounding muddied. Tenor Chris Bozenka, in his Houston debut production, and soprano Uliana Alexyuk sang the parts of Pedrillo and Blonde with youthful charm. Christopher Purves took on the speaking role of Pasha Selim—a relief from his sung role of Alberich in Houston’s Götterdämmerung, in which he appeared the following evening. Thomas Rösner brought a light Viennese touch to a score that Emperor Joseph II is said to have criticized for having “too many notes.” But with a performance of this high standard, his “dear Mozart,” would be proud.