Mozart was 26 when he transformed the German "singspiel" (a musical comedy with spoken dialogue) into a serious artistic achievement with Die Entführung aus dem Serail ("The Abduction from the Seraglio"). Just before he died, he composed an even greater one, Die Zauberflöte ("The Magic Flute"), and only Beethoven’s Fidelio and Weber’s Der Freischütz ever ascend to those heights again. Abduction is rarely done, and though Boston Lyric Opera’s entertaining new collaboration with Houston Grand Opera (where it premiered last year) and four other companies doesn’t plumb any depths, it’s still welcome. (Remaining performances are this Friday, Sunday, and Tuesday, November 15, 17, and 19, at the Shubert.)
The "idea" here was to shift the setting from the Turkish harem of the title to the Orient Express. Allen Moyer’s lavishly detailed 1920s railroad cars — with skylights, mirrors, a divan, a washroom, and a kitchenette — is a delight to the eye, though it tends to box in the singers. Later, this change becomes more damaging. When Belmonte, the noble hero, fails to rescue his beloved Konstanze from the Pasha Selim’s harem, they sing a duet about facing death together. But when you’re aboard a 20th-century railroad train — not a domain the Pasha is master of — it’s hard to take boiling oil as a serious threat, so why worry about the characters?
Director James Robinson had another clever idea. In Konstanze’s most brilliant aria, "Martern aller Arten" ("Torments unrelenting," in Andrew Porter’s English translation), which is sung here superbly by the sympathetic, vocally secure, and very pregnant soprano Jennifer Casey Cabot, Mozart gives his heroine, whose very name suggests constancy, music of fierce moral determination; she’ll face anything rather betray her lover (who here is also about to be the father of her baby). Robinson’s Konstanze, however, barely resists the Pasha’s passion, whose "torments" consist of covering her with diamonds, silks, and fur. The presentation of gifts wittily fills the long musical interlude that brings most productions to a standstill. The aria is one that Leonard Bernstein parodies in Cunegonde’s aria from Candide, "Glitter and Be Gay," in which she announces that she’ll "force" herself to submit to the dazzling jewels that will ruin her honor. Robinson, playing Mozart for laughs, turns the self-sacrificing heroine into Bernstein’s comic golddigger.
Robinson never really trusts Mozart. He continually upstages the most moving music by introducing distractions elsewhere on stage. And since no one in 1920 is likely to speak the language of Porter’s stately translation ("Cease, my beloved"), he adds slangy phrases like "drinky-winky" for an easy giggle.
The Pasha, a speaking part that here is acted with both glamor and inwardness by John Douglas Thompson (the ART’s Othello), certainly seems a more attractive catch than callow Belmonte (young tenor Eric Cutler), who sings of his love for Konstanze while looking into a bathroom mirror and humbles himself before the Pasha with one hand stuck in his pocket. Can this self-centered jock really love Konstanze, even though he sings three major arias to that effect? At the end, Konstanze returns the Pasha’s necklace, and they look longingly at each other as the curtain falls. This sexy look makes for good theater, but it renders the music, our only real reason for caring, irrelevant.
Cutler has a lovely lyric voice, but he could afford to loosen up and not be afraid to vary his timbre. Tenor Harold Gray Meers, impressive in Tod Machover’s Resurrection, is Belmonte’s appealingly inept manservant, Pedrillo, who sings a bewitching little Romanze ("In the land of the Moors"). Soprano Cyndia Sieden, Konstanze’s cockney maid, Blonde ("Blondie"), is probably the most accomplished actor among the singers. But she has the poorest diction (aggravated by her having to deliver some lines dangling a cigarette from her lips), an almost inaudible speaking voice, and chancy vocal production.
The great comic role is Osmin, the salacious and sadistic harem overseer, who’s infatuated with Blonde. Big basso Gustav Andreasson has the vocal flexibility and bottom-of-the-well low notes Mozart requires, and he’s a nimble performer. But he doesn’t inhabit this part from inside. The best Osmins are both silly and bloodthirsty — Oliver Hardy and Boris Karloff rolled into one. Andreasson seems only to be playacting.
Stephen Lord’s conducting is rhythmically alert and paced with variety, surprise, and point. The players give the tingling "Turkish" percussion and Mozart’s magical winds charm and bite and an almost vocal eloquence.