What happens after the end of the world? A little farce with a few pirates, a gallant lover, a love-sick pasha, a pesky valet, a love-sick harem guard with a voice like the earth, a disenchanted maid, and a kidnapped beauty with a voice like the sky.
So we learned from Houston Grand Opera’s elegant and enjoyable production of Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio, which has the unenviable task of following and pairing with the company’s triumphant Götterdämmerung. Admirably it succeeds in escaping from Wagner’s fiery apocalypse with a light-heart and unflagging song.
Abduction returns to a very old and frequently told folk tale, one favored by the great medieval writers Chaucer and Boccaccio. These stories feature a virtuous Christian woman, Constance, who is shipwrecked or kidnapped and begins a journey around the Mediterranean and into the Ottoman Empire. Sometimes she becomes the wife of a great sultan and sometimes returns home to her Christian family.
In Abduction, the Spanish beauty Konstanza is kidnapped by pirates along with her English maid Blonde and Pedrillo, who loves Blonde and serves as valet to Konstanza’s fiancé Belmonte. The three are sold to the Pasha Selim, who falls in love with Konstanza, and guarded the by fierce Osmin, the harem overseer who falls for Blonde. Who wouldn’t fall for a blonde? Although stuffed to the brim with human trafficking, death threats, torture fantasies, and revenge plots, love wins out in the end.
The little engine that could
It’s hard not to start with the exquisite vocalists, whose rendering of Abduction was light and sleek one moment, melancholy and moving the next. In other words they were, moment to moment, exactly what they needed to be and offer the perfect foil to the weighty and world-ending Wagner. Worry not, dear singers: I’ll return for you just as Belmonte returned for his beloved Konstanza.
But I’d be doing a serious injustice if I didn’t start with the little engine that could, and did, and then some. Let me first lend my voice to a hearty “Bravo” to the production team: costume designer Ann R. Oliver, lighting designer Paul Palazzo, projection designer Wendall K. Harrington, and, especially, set designer Allen Moyer. They brought to life the iconic Orient Express, substituting train rides for sea voyages, with a canny and quite literally moving choice.
Staging the opera on a train with Moyer’s eloquent architecture and the exquisite furnishings, utterly transformed the theater.
The low ceiling of the train relative to the normal height of an opera stage created the intimacy of longing but also the claustrophobia of captivity. Tight quarters made marvelous options for close physical comedy, concentrated and amplified the singers, and showcased Mozart’s marvelous groupings.
A single train car might serve beautifully for a solo. Two separate cars help divide frustrated lovers. The space between cars allowed for spying or contemplation or a quick cigarette. And to change scenes, well, the ingenious train just had to move a little down the track in one direction or the other to reveal new locations. Harrington’s projections create a beautiful sense of landscape, motion, and passing time.
Oliver’s costumes were, for the most part, sumptuous and well-chosen, nowhere more so than when Selim “tortures” Konstanza with an array of luxury apparel, all of which could be hers. Shagimuratova’s first frock was, however, downright frumpy and unnecessarily aged the vibrant singer.
More importantly, the choice of burkas for Selim’s other wives is one I’m still wondering about. The production wanted, a couple times, to flag for us that beneath the farcical orientalism of Abduction might be a noteworthy encounter between warring Christians and Muslims. Another such moment featured Osmin attempting to obey the call to prayer only to be interrupted by buffoonery and forgetting all about his devotions. But who, really, is the butt of the joke?
The power of song
It was, very much, a tale of travel and a train, but two voices especially kept the wheels singing down the proverbial tracks. I think I’ve never quite heard a voice so agile and so deep as that of American bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green, who was irresistible in his HGO debut as Osmin, the jealous overseer of the Selim’s harem. He excelled when glowering and threatening. He excelled at physical comedy. And he was enchanting when impotently threatening unimaginable tortures or obediently ironing at the whim his beloved Blonde.
Had you left after the opening scenes, you might be forgiven for thinking you had been to see the opera Osmin starring Green. Until, of course, the voice of the incomparable Albina Shagimuratova soared out over the audience as she took her turn as the fiercely faithful Konstanza.
I’ve had the good fortune of seeing Shagimuratova twice at HGO, starring in Lucia di Lammermoor and La Traviata. It seems all three roles demand a coloratura soprano who can hit every note with exquisite force and timing right out of the gate. This Shagimuratova more than manages in her opening act aria "How I loved him" or her second act showstopper, “Oh what sorrow overwhelms my spirit.”
If it seems I only had ears for Green and Shagimuratova then I have undersold the excellence of tenor Lawrence Brownlee, who adds a smash success in Abduction to his HGO triumphs of the last decade in The Italian Girl in Algiers, The Barber of Seville, and La Cenerentola. Brownlee’s marriage of sweetness and accuracy is a nuptial only surpassed by that with his future wife. To not be overshadowed by Shagimuratova is accomplishment enough but to match and enhance her significant voice, as in the late duet “What dreadful fate conspires against us,” is magical.
Former HGO studio artist Uliana Alexyuk and current HGO studio artist Chris Bozeka were a winning pair as Pedrillo and Blonde, though they were more convincing in the second quartet with Belmonte and Konstanza than on their own.
Between pirates and malevolent gods, the world can be unbearably complicated and downright hostile. Through the power of song, Abduction’s journey ends in unexpected generosity. Brünnhilde would have done well to book a ticket on this ride.
The Abduction from the Seraglio continues on April 30, May 6, 10, and 12. For more information visit the Houston Grand Opera website.