Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Abduction from the Seraglio

The week began badly when overnight Sunday I felt restless and unwell and woke up Monday unarguably sick. How or why cooked fresh spinach sometimes but not always seems to have that effect is a mystery. I meant to get to work around noon, but as time passed the symptoms did not. i even considered giving up my once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see Mozart's The Abduction from the Seraglio at Lyric Opera of Chicago. Of course, that would have been insane, and I couldn't let JT down, so after an internal pep talk I dragged myself to Trattoria No. 10, where I'd intended to eat only a little sorbet, but was tempted by squash-filled ravioli. Good food. Bad timing.

I thought I felt better after dinner, but as the opera progressed my head started to swim, and pain set in among my various innards. I wanted to outlast it, but by the end of the second act, around 9:30 p.m., I had to leave. My sensitivity to light and the pain had overbalanced the novelty and enjoyment of a night out and the experience.

It's really unfortunate. Last January JT had taken me to my first opera, Doctor Atomic, also at Lyric, and was eager to show me something more traditional but not overwhelming (like Wagner). The Abduction from the Seraglio, with its somewhat campy, comic plot and serious overtones, seemed like a good candidate. And, despite the distraction of my sensitive eyeballs and roiling guts, I did like it—or at least the first two acts.

I had read some reviews that alluded to the political indelicacies of staging Abduction in today's climate. Most people are savvy enough to understand that Mozart wrote in a particular context at a particular time, and that both are part of western cultural history. Isn't it a sign of the success of democratic principles that we don't choose to repress knowledge and expression of the past or its unpleasantnesses? Banning Huckleberry Finn won't eliminate hundreds of years of slavery or their legacy; reading Huckleberry Finn keeps alive the idea of where we have been and how much we have changed. If we don't stage Abduction, we may as well not stage most of the Shakespeare canon, or indeed much of anything before, say, 1960. There is something to offend someone in almost everything.

So I begin near the beginning, perhaps my favorite part of the two acts I saw—a number in which a captive of the harem goes missing, and harem overseer Osmin (Italian bass Andrea Silvestrelli) and his eunuchs enthusiastically stuff their pretty young charges into covered baskets as though they were annoying animate objects. It's sexist. It's slapstick. And it's funny. JT and I later agreed that this was one of our favorite scenes. In another that we both liked, the spunky English maid Blonde (soprano Aleksandra Kurzak) preferring the company of the eunuchs to that of the domineering, lust-struck Osmin, tells the would-be master what works for women like her—and it doesn't include threats or bullying demands.

There are only six characters in Abduction: Pasha Selim (David Steiger, who doesn't sing), Osmin, Belmonte (tenor Matthew Polenzani) and his Konstanze (soprano Erin Wall), and Pedrillo (tenor Steve Davislim) and his Blonde. To me, the standout character is Osmin, with Blonde a close second. Perhaps the Belmonte role is too stiff for my taste, but he and Konstanze were not that interesting to me. Part of this may be that the comic bits overshadowed the serious, and I never felt (during the first two acts) a genuine threat to the women. Perhaps that was stronger in the third, as was foreshadowed by the darkening of the set as the second act progressed. The tone throughout swung back and forth between comic cultural disconnects and the more serious theme of cultural, social, and sexual gulfs.

Director Chas Rader-Shieber tacked on two bits that didn't add anything. One is the periodic appearance of the pasha as an old man, watching his scenes as though looking back on a memory. Perhaps it was in the execution, but it was more of a distraction than an enhancement. Perhaps the idea was to make him seem sad or wistful as he looks back on what he has learned or missed. In another scene with Konstanze and Blonde, several women in burqas watch their performance. This seemed to be nothing more than a provocative non sequitur. Abduction would have been better without the additions.

As for the costumes and staging, I'm on the fence. One critic thought the costumes awful (with Osmin and the eunuchs dressed like samurai, according to him), while JT thought they were fabulous. Although perhaps not true to Mozart, I would have liked to have seen less campy, more authentic costumes. The sets weren't anything special, and the second act took place on one that JT described as like a surreal Rene Magritte painting—nearly solid, almost flat colors, with saturated green grass and blue sky. Its simplicity (and the turning of it mid-act) were almost distracting. If the idea were to evoke an artist and style, perhaps I'd have considered emulating Maxfield Parrish—exotic, erotic, and illustrative. To me, it may have suited the setting and the tone better. But perhaps I'm being too literal.

The singing performances were good if not notable (which is possibly a function of the opera). I felt that the orchestra, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, overwhelmed the singers in a few places, but JT, who had seen a dress rehearsal a while ago, didn't notice that. As for Mozart's composition, in my condition it was difficult enough to focus on the characters, plot, and translation (especially since I had to close my eyes several times against what to me was painful brightness), but I didn't note his "too many notes" embellishments, although I'm told they were there. Subconsciously, I did keep an ear out for eastern influences, but didn't hear them. JT said there were some but that they were not of the traditional style I may have been expecting. It was a different time.

Am I a convert to opera now? Hard to say. Doctor Atomic, which was modern, arrhythmic and unmelodious, brooding, and laced with dark humor, embraced enormous themes of life, love, and mass destruction, while The Abduction from the Seraglio seemed almost frivolous in contrast. I need to see more, I suppose.

If I do go again—no spinach, please.

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