The opera most conspicuous by its absence from the Mozart 250th anniversary was Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Harem). It’s not as if Mozart’s Singspiel suffers from over-exposure or lacks tunes – far from it. More likely there are too many sensitivities surrounding its subject-matter – the imprisoning of Christians by Muslims who threaten them with rape and death.
On the surface Seraglio is an indictment of a culture that denies alcohol, women’s rights and democratic freedoms. Look closer and you realise it’s more finely balanced: the Bassa Selim gives his Christian prisoners their freedom without seeking revenge for previous injustice, and Osmin is no worse than any petty dictator in the workplace.
Scope for acknowledging tensions over Islam’s place in post-9/11 western society? The opera business likes to think it is in tune with society at large but this time it has run for cover. I’m not saying a contemporary version is the only justification for Seraglio: it’s a comedy as much as a play about Middle Eastern values. Nevertheless an opportunity has been missed in Tobias Hoheisel’s staging, a co-production between Scottish Opera and the Nationale Reisopera of the Netherlands.
Hoheisel, better known as a designer than a director, sets the entire performance in a sandpit divided by a waist-high barrier, a symbol of emotional rather than ethnic separation. The chorus remains out of sight, and the only colour – apart from the briefest glimpse of a Turkish mural – is provided by period costumes, each of a similar cut and style.
I’m all for simplicity but this austere chamber-production is a step too far. Hoheisel is not a good enough director to bring out the comedy or vary the pace. The English dialogue doesn’t flow. In voice and stage personality the cast offers insufficient compensation, and Jeremy Carnall’s pedestrian conducting does not help.
Rebecca Bottone’s Blonde is a stage animal and a musical stylist: the performance sparkles whenever she takes centre-stage. The others, none of them native English-speakers, are all feeling their way. Dimitry Ivashchenko makes a case for a non-buffo Osmin, but Eric Laporte’s Belmonte and Julia Borchert’s Konstanze struggle to humanise their parts.