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A Poignant Question-mark

Opera North's 'Abduction from the Seraglio',
reviewed by MIKE WHEELER


Finding a convincing balance-point between comedy and drama in Mozart's opera of inter-cultural misunderstanding, The Abduction from the Seraglio, is not easy. Tim Hopkins' production for Opera North (he also designed the sets) gives the serious moments their due, but it's the (often highly physical) comedy that makes the stronger impression (Theatre Royal, Nottingham, UK, 16 June 2009).

Tim Hopkins' and Nicholas Ridout's adaptation sets the action in a modern oil-rich Gulf state which, as the toy earthmovers and model buildings moved around the stage tell us, is still constructing its identity.

Osmin is the Pasha's head of internal security -- Act 1 takes place around his reception desk in the palace. The fancy-dress party at which the Pasha plans to announce his engagement to Constanze is the pretext for some suitably daffy costumes; as is the way of these things, they project the characters' fantasies -- Belmonte sees himself as Peter O'Toole's Lawrence of Arabia, Blonde and Pedrillo aspire to be super-heroes, Constanze (interestingly, given the emotional equivocation she feels) is dressed as a belly-dancer, the Pasha as a pirate; the Mute (more of whom in a moment) sports a fetching panda outfit.

The production has a delightfully absurd sense of its own theatricality. The main acting area is a stage-within-the-stage, having a separate drop curtain (and a separate proscenium in Act 1) leaving an additional area at the front of the main stage. The escape in Act 3 is a hilarious cartoon-style sequence, without music but with sampled footprints and other sound-effects played from an on-stage electronic keyboard (I won't give away the scene's culminating joke, but it brings the house down). As Osmin sings his aria of triumph at the foiled escape, the inner curtain goes up to show that the Mute (still in panda costume) has got the two couples covered with a gun.

The Mute, in fact, speaks -- but only to us, the audience; Nadia Morgan gives her just the right amount of rhetorical projection. She is both story-teller and observer, watching from the back or side of the stage, or filming live videos of the other characters, even the orchestra and conductor. The results, projected onto the set, occasionally become effective camouflage for some of the characters. Her early appearances as a post-girl hint at her crucial role later, in which the outcome hinges on which of two letters -- Belmonte's to Constanze, or Constanze's to the Pasha, saying she loves him but needs time to leave her earlier emotions behind -- she decides to deliver first (a pander is a go-between, right?).

The music, buoyantly conducted by Rory Macdonald, is sung and played freshly and vigorously. Allan Clayton's ardently sincere Belmonte is well matched by Kate Valentine's Constanze; both are admirably even-toned throughout their range. The strength and determination Valentine brings to her Act 2 arias show us a Constanze bravely confronting her predicament, as she realises her growing feelings for the Pasha. Nicholas Sharratt's wide-boy Pedrillo and Elena Xanthoudakis's feisty Blonde are perfect foils to the other two. Clive Bayley's Osmin, while short on menace, plays up the role's comedy to perfection. His baritonal quality is belied by his rich bottom notes. Martin Hyder gives Pasha Selim dignity while suggesting the passion only just below the surface. Amanda Holden's witty English translation occasionally needs sharper diction to come across.

The twist in Tim Hopkins' and Nicholas Ridout's adaptation is that Selim is, as the Mute keeps reminding us, 'the Pasha who wasn't a Turk'. Here he is a renegade Spaniard who has gone over to the other side. It's the values of forgiveness and of renouncing revenge he has learned from the Turks that enable him to let the four Westerners go. But as their departing plane is projected on the rear of the set, the Mute/Panda gives him Constanze's letter. It's a poignant question-mark on which to end.

Copyright © 20 June 2009 Mike Wheeler,
Derby UK













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