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Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio

Boston Lyric Opera

May 2 and May 6 at 7:30 p.m., May 4 at 4 p.m.

It’s no surprise that in Boston, a city inundated with eager students, free arts events harness high attendance. Last week, hundreds of such students attended a free performance of the Boston Lyric Opera’s last production of the season, The Abduction from the Seraglio. Though this is one of Mozart’s lesser known operas, the theatre filled to near full capacity. The Boston Lyric Opera has been offering free tickets to the public (but specifically targeting students) for the dress rehearsals of all its major productions. Before the beginning of the overture, Janice Mancini Del Sesto, the exuberant General Director of the BLO, arrived in the left box seat to announce this season’s recipient of the Stephen Shrestinian Award for Excellence. She then proudly led the audience in a grand applause for Joseph Valone, a Boston University music program alumnus; the award was a cash prize for a young, up-and-coming performer wishing to further his or her career in professional opera.

Before she left the box seat and with spotlight still shining upon her, Del Sesto warned the audience that since this was a dress rehearsal, the cast could stop at any moment in order to implement last minute changes. Immediately thereafter, a smiling Willie Anthony Waters walked out, waving his conductor’s baton toward the audience. As applause for him faded, the orchestra began the overture. This passage of music, shorter than other Mozart overtures, set the tone for the rest of the evening. Instead of containing memorable melodies and varied tempos and dynamics, the overture meandered around a few chords.

The stage curtain opened up to reveal a cross section of two neighboring cars on the Orient Express. A projection, displaying an antique map of the train’s course, glimmered on the curtain for the duration of the opera. This set decision, probably made by stage director James Robinson, created an uncomfortably cramped and narrow view of the stage. Clearly, Robinson was trying to imitate the actual small quarters of even the most posh cars on the Orient Express, but the half-raised curtains obscured so much of the stage’s natural space that it was difficult to get a clear perspective, even from the balcony seats.

Because all the scenes happen in one train car or the other, set designer Allen Moyer cleverly devised a moving set on wheels that shifted from left to right during scene changes. This not only gave the impression that we were still on a train with the cast, but also helped to solve the horizontal spacing issues on stage. The story of The Abduction from the Seraglio is a universal one, involving love, jealousy, desire, and risk. Belmonte, a Spanish nobleman, has arrived on the Orient Express to find his wife, Constanze, who was captured earlier by pirates and sold to the Pasha Selim from Istanbul.

While there is much opportunity for drama and humor here, this new interpretation of Abduction proved weak and unmoving. Sung in a very traditional operatic style, most musical numbers showcased vocalists singing a small number of lines for numerous repetitions. This rendered most of the solo arias dull and boring. The orchestral parts failed to introduce new and exciting motifs to balance the lack of variety in the singing. It appears as though Robinson tried to exaggerate the humor in this opera in order to appeal to a wider audience; the result, however, was an awful display of poorly-executed slapstick scenes. Osmin, one of the Pasha’s servants, oversees the duties of a lesser servant. The two get into a scuffle so that Osmin may show his power over the weaker Pedrillo, and at the end of the scene, Osmin hog-ties Pedrillo up in rope, kicks him on the floor, and finishes by shoving an apple in Pedrillo’s mouth. This whole brawl looked utterly silly and immature on stage, and detracted from the whole performance.

Subsequent scenes included slapstick comedy that did not complement the drama of this opera in an appropriate way. A closer look at the program for this opera reveals that most of the actors are making their Boston Lyric Opera debut in this production. Their lack of experience working together definitely came through during the many duets and ensemble pieces. Specifically, during Belmonte’s and Constanze’s duet, they sing with little interaction. They do not naturally appear to be lovers on stage, but rather as individual singers vying for personal attention.

As the Boston Lyric Opera’s last production of the season, The Abduction from the Seraglio was not a good choice. However, it could also be Robinson’s poor decision-making that turned this production into a caricature. It seems as though the goal here was mass appeal and cheap laughter rather than achieving the pinnacle of fine art. Though you still have another week to catch this opera (if you can stomach the crude humor and inexperienced singers), the Boston Lyric Opera has another season to get things right.