Strangers On A Train – The Abduction From the Seraglio

Strangers On A Train – The Abduction From the Seraglio

[Mozart/Bretzner – Los Angeles Opera production directed by James Robinson; closed]

The Los Angeles Opera’s co-production of Mozart’s The Abduction From the Seraglio (Die Entführung aus dem Serail), which closed February 19th, updated the action of this singspiel from its original mid- to late-18th century Ottoman Turkish setting, when the Ottoman Empire had reached its greatest extent in central Europe (pressing into Hungary and even to the margins of Vienna itself) to the 1920s when post-World War I Turkey was in transition from its corrupt imperial legacy to a modern republican state, both (by necessity) more self-contained and of distinctly Turkish identity. The action was also shifted from the stationary setting of a pasha’s country estate to a moving train – more specifically, the luxurious Istanbul-Paris-London Orient Express – really the only train fit for a pasha). (Even the title, pasha, would have been an Ottoman legacy by this time – more or less the equivalent of an English baronetcy, though it persisted well into the 20th century.)

The production matched that legendary train in its splendor – it was easily one of the most handsome productions I’ve ever seen mounted at the L.A. Opera. This was actually a co-production of five opera companies (including Houston, Kansas City, Boston and Minnesota companies) and shows what can be accomplished when companies pool their resources for especially challenging or elaborate productions. Still more outstanding was that the cast matched the splendor of its backdrop, featuring the superb English soprano Sally Matthews in the role of the abducted yet doted-upon Konstanze; So Young Park, who more than held her own to that star-power as Konstanze’s abducted servant Blonde; and bass Morris Robinson whose powerful vocal performance easily matched the theatrics both comical and intimidating in his role of Osmin, the Pasha Selim’s overbearing servant. Robinson plays him as if he were a major domo; and – beautifully counter-poised by So Young Park’s brilliant singing and considerably drier comedy – the performance gives the production a vocal signature parallel to Matthews’ lead. 

Apart from the outstanding singing (and I thought it stood up well to some of the great recordings I’ve heard of the opera), the production conveyed a psychological dimension not always accessed by singers and musicians. In all probability early productions played this element as straight farcical romance (not to discount the subtleties available in the music itself or for that matter the talents of Mozart’s librettist, Christoph Bretzner). But what I thought the cast and production captured was the sense of suspense and captivity, both physical and emotional, ironically emphasized by the ‘moving’ train. In the interplay of the performers, we saw the psychological chemistry in full – the survival strategies of both captives and the seraglio itself; the manipulative gaming of penalties and rewards; the role-playing and and the larger symbiosis of hostages and hostage-takers.

But, whether a matter of coincidence or conscious emphasis, I thought the production also made for a sly commentary at this politically and culturally fraught moment on the hostage state we seem to have become. The current occupant of the Oval Office may be distinguished from the Pasha of Abduction by his singular fusion of bullying and cowardice; but like the Pasha, he’d like nothing more than his blue state ‘captives’ to set aside their most prized principles and values and surrender themselves entirely to, not simply his personal and political prerogatives, but sheer adoration and adulation. ‘Love’ might be too much of a stretch, since that would require a measure of trust he clearly finds unattainable – which, by now it may in fact be. In Abduction, Osmin is the voice of this cynical absence of trust. His only real trust is for the Pasha himself, under whom we see through his comic bluster that he feels empowered far beyond his overseer status. Yet ultimately his trust is overthrown; he reverts to the isolation of the seraglio.

The troubling afterthought in the here and now (and two weeks after the production closed) is that it is not simply the ‘Osmins” and ‘overseers’ returned to a place of diminished status and relative isolation, but an entire trainload of passengers. Also – not unlike this production’s transmigration – we’re captives on a moving vessel; and it’s not going to wait for the rewards, pardons or apologies of pashas and overseers alike.