La Scena Musicale

Monday, 28 October 2013

Opera Atelier's Abduction from the Seraglio a Non-Stop Comic Romp

Opera Atelier's Abduction from the Seraglio a Non-Stop Comic Romp

- Joseph So

Elgin Theatre, October 26, 2013

Ambur Braid (Konstanze)
Lawrence Wiliford (Belmonte)
Carla Huhtanen (Blondchen)
Adam Fisher (Pedrillo)
Gustav Andreassen (Osmin)
Curtis Sullivan (Pasha Selim)
David Fallis, conductor
Gerard Gauci, set designer
Marshall Pynkoski, stage director
Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg, choreographer
Margaret Lamb, costume designer
Bonnie Beecher, lighting designer

It hardly seems possible that it's already been five years since this beautiful production had its premiere, in the fall of 2008. At the time, I was struck by the gorgeous unit set by Gerard Gauci and the wildly colourful costumes by Margaret Lamb.  Now it is making a welcome return to open the OA fall season, with a few cast changes. Soprano Ambur Braid and tenor Lawrence Wiliford replace the original Konstanze and Belmonte from 2008, soprano Amanda Pabyan and tenor Frederic Antoun.  Wiliford, Pedrillo five years ago, has "graduated" to Belmonte. Taking his place as Pedrillo is tenor Adam Fisher, making his OA debut. Returnees include Carla Huhtanen (Blondchen), Osmin (Gustav Andreassen) and Pasha Selim (Curtis Sullivan).    

Two happy couples (l. to r.) Ambur Braid, Lawrence Wiliford, Adam Fisher, Carla Huhtanen (Photo: Bruce Zinger)

This production underscores the gradual shift in recent years of Opera Atelier's performance aesthetic, from an essentially traditional, historically informed approach for most of OA's history to the current one, where the stage direction is generally designed for contemporary sensibilities.  This Abduction is unabashedly zany, sexy, and wildly over-the-top.  It helps that OA artists are not just good singers but also youthful, attractive people with trim figures and are not shy to show off their physical assets - the old operatic adage that "it ain't over until the fat lady sings" certainly does not apply here!  The current OA performance vision works well with a piece like Abduction, a story that's more fantasy than grounded in reality. Without going into a discussion of Edward Said's Orientalism discourse, it's safe to say that Mozart's view of the "ethnographic other" - in this case Turkey - is a product of his upbringing, ie. the Eurocentric lens of the Middle European male composer. Given the 21st Century sensibilities regarding sexual and ethno-racial stereotyping, this opera can be problematic to a modern audience. By turning it into an outrageously farcical romp, it glosses over the knotty sexual politics and the inherent racism that would have offended many in the audience today. To this end, the OA production works well, as a bellyful of laughs can be very forgiving.           

That said, there's a downside to all this. While Abduction does not have quite the darkness (or social commentary) that inhabits Mozart's later, more mature works like Le nozze di Figaro or Die Zauberfloete, inevitably certain nuances inherent in the story are lost given the broadly comedic treatment. For one thing, there isn't enough of a contrast between two couples. The upstairs folks (Konstanze and Belmonte) are supposed to be the more serious sort compared to the downstairs ones (Blondchen and Pedrillo). Structurally, the two couples are not unlike Conte/Contessa and Figaro/Susanna, or even Pamina/Tamino and Papageno/Papagena. Painting them with the same broad comedic stroke takes away some of the nuances in the story.  A more serious blemish is the characterization of Pasha Selim.  While he is recognized as the "bad guy," Pasha Selim is redeemed in the end by letting the lovers go, an act of forgiveness that underscores his humanity. Sadly this Pasha Selim is a caricature, a cardboard figure singularly lacking in nobility.

Musically something is lost as well. Abduction is not such a long opera that would warrant cuts. So it was strange that five years ago, the tenor aria 'Ich baue ganz' - a definite high point of the opera - disappeared. I lamented this in my Opera (u.k.) review at the time, especially when Belmonte was the excellent Quebec tenor Frederic Antoun who could have aced this very difficult aria. Lawrence Wiliford this time around could have done justice to it as well. Instead, we have added music for more dancing through a repeat of the overture near the end! I have nothing against the choreography, but in my view it's a poor trade-off.  In Konstanze's great aria, 'Martern aller arten,' there were many moments when the tempo deliberately slowed to accommodate the onstage shenanigans with the dancers brandishing the torture instruments. This has the effect of impeding the natural flow of the aria.
A bespectacled Konstanze mugging with Belmonte (Photo: Bruce Zinger)

Now a few comments about the singing. Seen on opening night, the cast was very strong. In her first Konstanze, Ambur Braid impressed with stratospheric high notes and coloratura facility, although her pronounced vibrato sometimes caused her tone to flutter. A fine actress, her mobile face - inexplicably wearing glasses in a few scenes! - was inimitable. She was well partnered by tenor Lawrence Wiliford as an engaging Belmonte. His vocal refinement and Mozartian grace made up for a relatively modest-sized instrument, and sadly no 'Ich baue ganz.' Soprano Carla Huhtanen was well nigh perfect as a vivacious and saucy Blondchen, and she had excellent chemistry with her Pedrillo, sung by tenor Adam Fisher making his OA debut. Visually a superb Pedrillo, Fisher sang well save for a few tight top notes. His athleticism served him well in this production, given he had to take his clothes off at one point, although one could do without the sexual shenanigans on the balcony with Blondchen. Norwegian bass Gustav Andreassen repeated his excellent Osmin five years ago, but on this occasion, he surprisingly lacked the requisite firm low notes in the duet with Blondchen. As Pasha Selim, OA regular Curtis Sullivan doesn't get to sing, but visually he was a formidable villain. The OA dancers were a feast to the eyes as usual, and the chorus was fine in its few brief moments in the spotlight.  David Fallis conducted with a sure hand, albeit a few tempo concessions to accommodate stage action notwithstanding. 
(l. to r.) Adam Fisher, Lawrence Wiliford, Ambur Braid, Carla Huhtanen, Gustav Andreassen (Photo: Joseph So)

A few final thoughts - no, this Abduction isn't profound, authentic or complete, but it is decidedly fun and entertaining, which is not a bad thing!  The audience on opening night - a virtually full house - was very appreciative. You can catch this in four more shows on Oct. 29, 30, Nov. 1, 2 at the Elgin Theatre.       

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  • Thanks for a comprehensive & knowledgeable review, Joseph.

    But I disagree with a position you take that more or less echoes conventional wisdom. You object to
    "certain nuances inherent in the story [being] lost given the broadly comedic treatment".

    I believe the missing nuances you speak of are the assumptions from musicology that weigh down modern producers. It is not "nuanced" to strait-jacket performers by their class. I understand the word "nuanced" to be subtle, which is what Pynkoski gave us. The difference in sexual behaviour that you objected to (a Blonde who is voracious & semi-clothed vs a virginal Konstanze) makes for a nuanced approach to delineating class, even if it's very traditional to suggest that the servants are earthy & sexual while their betters are repressed & vicarious. This ties in, too, with the glasses Braid wears, suggesting she's learned about life through romance novels (admittedly something i read online somewhere in an interview).

    It's not to everyone's taste, but I feel strongly that Marshall is in some respects truer to the spirit of the original, as he was with his Don Giovanni. I think he's on to something with the emphasis on comedy.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 28 October 2013 at 10:33  

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