MUSIC | Mozart's Orient Express arrives at the Ordway
By Jay Gabler , TC Daily Planet
November 7, 2008
Ben Johnson in The Abduction from the Seraglio: Pasha needs a heater.
Photo by Michal Daniel, courtesy Minnesota Opera.
The Minnesota Opera is billing their upcoming production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville as “the perfect opera for first-timers,” but for the uninitiated, an even better bet might be the company’s current production of Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio. The score is pure ear candy, the passages of spoken dialogue help ground the arias (Abduction was written as a “singspiel,” a form akin to a Broadway musical), the elaborate set is a thing of beauty, and the cast members have a great deal of fun with the opera’s broad humor and farcical plot.
The Abduction from the Serraglio, an opera written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (with libretto by Christoph Friedrich Bretzner) and directed by James Robinson. Presented by The Minnesota Opera through November 9 at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, 345 Washington St., St. Paul. For tickets ($65-$150) and information, see mnopera.org.
The opera, written in 1781 at the beginning of Mozart’s life-capping decade in Vienna, follows a pair of European men who set out to rescue their lady loves from the clutches of an Ottoman pasha and his doofish henchman. The operation necessitates brazen lies, ineffective disguises, and detailed but dubious plans involving rope ladders. To Mozart’s gloriously melodic and shamelessly showy music—replete with light touches of “Oriental” instrumental color—the characters in turn proclaim their love, their hatred, their nervousness, their frustration, and their joy. If the composition doesn’t reach for the transcendent heights of Mozart’s later work, it remains a crowd-pleasing favorite.
The production onstage at the Ordway was co-commissioned by a number of regional American opera companies, which pooled resources to build a set representing several cars on Europe’s Oriental Express circa the 1920s. It’s a clever concept, executed to perfect pitch by director James Robinson. The set actually slides back and forth as the action moves from car to car, and stage tricks (rolling backgrounds, changing light, extras “running” to catch the train) are deployed judiciously and effectively. The lavish production would be watchable even if the performances lagged, which they do not—though supporting players Jeffrey Halili and Kathleen Kim, both bursting with gusto, regularly upstage Michael Colvin and Jennifer Casey Cabot, the competent but bland leads. The role of Osmin, the pasha’s overseer, is so juicy that even Chris Coleman could get laughs in it, but the stiff Harold Wilson has to work hard to earn the crowd’s chuckles.
On the night I attended, the Ordway’s Main Hall was gratifyingly packed—and if the crowd was largely old, white, and (to all appearances) heterosexual, The Minnesota Opera can’t be blamed for failing to try to diversify their audience. The company offers special programs for “young professionals” and the GBLT community, members of which are wooed with a program ad featuring a smoldering tenor clad in black leather and a turtleneck sweater. The ad promises that “Out @ the Opera” nights will feature behind-the-scenes access: “You never know who might show up, or what dirt they might dish!” All credit to The Minnesota Opera for their aspiration to inclusiveness, but it seems to me that their outreach efforts might meet with more success if their copywriters tried a little harder to see past the stereotype of those gossipy gays.
Jay Gabler is the Daily Planet’s arts editor.