Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Abduction of Mozart

In the period of about 1780-1820 the idea of the confrontation of an eastern Moslem man and a western Christian woman was quite appealing, and formed the basis for three well known operas:

  • July 16,1782, Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio) by Mozart,
  • May 22, 1813, L'italiana in Algeri (The Italian Girl in Algiers) by Rossini,
  • August 14, 1814, Il turco in Italia (The Turk in Italy) also by Rossini.
The basic idea here is that the traditional eastern man is very much attracted to the open, bold western woman who would not even consider for a second living in the prison-like seclusion of an eastern harem.

Here we concern ourselves only with the Mozart opera which was presented last night at the San Francisco Opera. Mozart had not yet begun his collaboration with Da Ponte. Mozart is constantly being attributed ideas about opera which are similar to Gluck's. The truth can be seen in this paragraph, stolen from Wikipedia, from a letter from Mozart to his father:

"I would say that in an opera the poetry must be altogether the obedient daughter of the music. Why are Italian comic operas popular everywhere — in spite of the miserable libretti? … Because the music reigns supreme, and when one listens to it all else is forgotten. An opera is sure of success when the plot is well worked out, the words written solely for the music and not shoved in here and there to suit some miserable rhyme ... The best thing of all is when a good composer, who understands the stage and is talented enough to make sound suggestions, meets an able poet, that true phoenix; in that case, no fears need be entertained as to the applause — even of the ignorant."

These are not the opinions of a confirmed reformer. Abduction is supposed to be a Singspiel, a semi-popular work in German with spoken dialog. What it actually is is a series of fair to good arias in the Italian style strung together with bits of separating German dialog. It's a little bit funny but not much. The arias are not that good. Fidelio and Magic Flute are closer to the Singspiel genre. "Martern aller Arten" is as close to a hit tune as this opera provides. As Mozart goes, it is hardly better than juvenilia.

His years in Houston have led David Gockley to a great depth of knowledge of international operatic talent. I was most familiar with Anna Christy as Blonde, having seen her before as Lisette in La Rondine and as Bianca in Bianca e Falliero. She is a fine soubrette coloratura.

Also excellent were Mary Dunleavy as the depressingly serious and noble Constanze, and Matthew Polenzani as her lover Belmonte.

None of these singers is German, and the opera company spared itself the thankless task of trying to teach them proper German theater pronunciation in spoken dialog. The arias were performed in incomprehensible German, and the spoken dialog was in English.

I don't honestly think this opera deserves the attention it gets in major houses. However, in its defense Wikipedia says it was Mozart's first hit in Vienna. I think Da Ponte saved Mozart from historical obscurity as an opera composer.

The standard classical orchestra is augmented with the instruments needed for "Turkish" music: bass drum, cymbals, triangle and piccolo.

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