Cher Public

Cold Turkey

Mozart 1The no-star, slapstick revival of John Dexter’s 37-year-old production of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail that opened Friday night proved James Levine’s tenure as Music Director of the Met will end in two weeks with neither a whimper nor a bang. Other than Albina Shagimuratova’s dramatically dour but vocally gleaming Konstanze, no compelling reason for these performances presented itself besides its maestro’s desire to conduct a favorite work. 

In the many years since this production premiered, directors have peered deeply into the disturbing cross-cultural conflicts that shimmer below the surface of Christoph Friedrich Bretzner’s ambiguous libretto. But Stephen Pickover’s broad revival of Dexter’s original—in Jocelyn Herbert’s blindingly-lit cartoon-cutout sets—always went for the easy laughs; there was little danger in either the June Taylor-synchronized marching of the Pasha’s troops or the gleaming pecs-and-abs atop flimsy see-through harem pants of the guards.

Only Shagimuratova’s grim anguish leavened by flashes of defiance suggested that her “stay” at the Pasha’s harem might have been something darker than an extended exotic vacation.

The soprano from Uzbekistan tackled Konstanze’s demanding music with sometimes striking fire. She bravely executed her fiendish entrance aria “Ach ich liebte” with éclat, but her two subsequent arias were slightly less impressive—a slightly rushed “Traurigkeit” failed to plumb the depths of this piercingly sad aria and “Marten aller arten” exposed Shagimuratova’s weak lower register and lack of a real trill. But this was a brave first stab at the fiercely challenging role.

Unfortunately, neither her opaque demeanor nor her sometimes coldly glistering soprano engendered much sympathy for the prisoner who strode about the compound with the hauteur of an entitled prima donna.

Perhaps she was just expressing some believable ambivalence about the men in her life. As the elegant if unthreatening Pasha Selim, Matthias von Stegmann returned to the role of his 2003 Met debut. He attempted to inject some tension and suspense into the oddly rollicking evening, but that was nearly impossible when he was clad first in pink and orange and then in all-white—each outfit becomingly topped off with feathered turbans.

That Konstanze might have been tempted by this maturely handsome Pasha was understandable given that her alternative was Paul Appleby’s strenuous and jejune Belmonte. One sought in vain for some vocal beauty in his four exquisite extended arias of yearning. Instead he planted himself at the edge of the stage and stressed and strained his way through them, nearly coming apart in the florid “Ich baue ganz.”

Mozart 2That he was unsuited to Belmonte in such a large house grew even clearer when his small tenor virtually disappeared in the demanding, moving duet with Konstanze—with whom he also lacked any dramatic chemistry. I didn’t need to recall some of my earlier Met Belmontes—Gosta Winbergh, Francisco Araiza and Matthew Polenzani—to realize just how much was missing.

Appleby was more at ease in the hijinks with Pedrillo perhaps because Belmonte’s extravagantly over-the-top cape-twirling fit in well with the evening’s relentless comic business. Lanky Brenton Ryan in his Met debut as the manservant gamely pranced around the stage with verve, and his potent “Frisch zum Kampfe” revealed some strong high notes. However, the vivacious duet with Osmin lacked sparkle, and he plowed loudly and charmlessly through the varied verses of his fetching third-act serenade.

No doubt he was also stumped as how to interact with Kathleen Kim’s relentlessly perky Blondchen. Her bright soprano has grown bigger and brassier, and while she sailed through the maid’s music handily, one might have been forgiven for thinking she was once again singing Olympia. Her typical demeanor was to smile maniacally into the auditorium, plant her hands firmly on her hips and steadfastly ignore anyone else on stage, even the hammy, galumphing Osmin of Hans-Peter König.

The German bass, who has shone in Wagner roles at the Met ever the past few seasons, became the most buffoonish harem-overseer possible, goofing around the stage and singing carelessly, ending up out-of-sync with the orchestra on more than one occasion. Both his usually surefire “Solche hergelauf’ne Laffen” and “O, wie will ich triumpheren” fell flat, lacking both solid low notes and a sense of menace.

Meanwhile Maestro seemed to be having a good time at ease with the antique production familiar to him since he conducted its premiere in 1979. Maybe he knows what to make of the trees in the second act dotted with what looks like fried eggs? In any case, his fleet tempi sometimes tripped up his busy soloists while the reduced chorus sounded distressingly squally in its Janissary-influenced music. Levine did manage to guide his ragged quartet of lovers to a satisfying reunion quartet.

But this needs to be the last time Met audiences are subjected to this decrepit and shallow take on Mozart’s complex masterpiece. A priority for the next Met music director must be a new production that at least acknowledges the disturbing issues that roil beneath the surface of Die Entführung aus dem Serail. In the meantime one can at least enjoy Shagimuratova’s occasionally thrilling heroine—and perhaps Ben Bliss on April 30 may prove her worthy rescuer.

Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

  • PCally

    Ugh I was hoping to go to this as I’ve never actually seen the opera live, but this sounds unbelievably dreary. Was the production that slapstick when it premiered?

    • Bill

      PCally -- there is a certain amount of natural slapstick
      in Entfuehrung, it being a Singspiel. Unfortunately
      some stage directors (or singers actually on their own) overdo it. The music is sublime and most of the singers are truly tested for their agility and limpid tone.
      There is an immense amount of dialogue much of which
      is usually cut (otherwise it becomes tedious).
      As the Met did not have it in its repertoire from 1950
      onward (a few performances were done at the Met in the
      1940s with Eleanor Steber as Constanze) I did not encounter the opera on stage until Salzburg 1965
      with Wunderlich, Rothenberger, Grist in a wonderful
      Strehler production. Later with Dermota and Coertse
      in Vienna and then all over. I never much liked the
      Met production (too cardboardlike) but it was simple and did not deter one’s appreciation of the musical
      performance and Levine’s lush Mozartian orchestra.
      One should go -- it is unlikely to be reprised at the Met for a good number of years or until a Wunderlich type tenor surfaces at the Met who wishes to essay Belmonte.

    • gustave of montreal

      Oh never trust the critics, its only one man’s picky opinion. Go to the opera and judge by yourself you might enjoy a wonderful evening for which I envy you.

      • Camille

        Wonderful advice gustave chéri! Exactement!

        Un doux bisou pour vous!

    • Krunoslav

      While there are some drab aspects, and the Pedrillo and Blonde are directed as caricatures, there is quite a bit to enjoy-- though I too would counsel going when Ben Bliss takes over Belmonte, this coming Saturday evening.

    • Jmrd

      I quite liked the glyndebourne production this past summer. The slapstick and comedy elements seemed to fit in quite nicely without seeming stupid or out of place. I don’t know if they cut any of the dialogue but I do remember the German actor they got to play the pasha did a lot of shirtless yelling. For anyone interested here it is on youtube (with english subtitles). The sets and costumes are miles ahead of the unbelievably cheap looking met staging.

      • PCally

        The singing is pretty bad IMO but this is another example of how none of McVicars work at the met is representative of him at his best.

  • Thank you Christopher for my new favorite word: GLISTERING

    • Krunoslav

      “Down, down I come; Like glistering Phaethon, Wanting the manage of unruly jades.”

      (Not Doll Tearsheet, but my favorite high school part: Richard II, played opposite the Bolingbroke of the best friend I secretly (barely, but it seems so) adored.

    • actfive

      “All that glisters is not gold.”--Merchant of Venice

  • Niel Rishoi

    Has anyone noticed that there are very few classic Mozart singers now?

    • Bill

      I have heard some excellent young Mozartian sopranos
      in Vienna and Budapest in the last couple of years.
      But it does seem tougher almost everywhere, even in
      Salzburg, to put together a classic cast for
      Don Giovanni, Figaro, Flute and Cosi than it used to be.

      • armerjacquino

        Because a ‘classic’ cast can only be viewed as such in retrospect.

  • Signor Bruschino

    Rather a new production of Entfuhrung, it would be great for the Met to expand its Mozart offerings- Mitridate anyone?

    • Krunoslav

      Yes, to me MITRIDATE is a much more compelling work than LUCIO SILLA.

      • manou

        The Royal Opera will be reviving the grandiose Graham Vick production of Mitridate in June 2017. With Michael Spyres, Albina Shaggy and Bejun Mehta.

        • Signor Bruschino

          I love that production- saw it in the 90s! Thanks for the heads up!

      • This season Brussels has Mitridate, next season Lucio Silla.

    • We have Mitridate coming up again in Brussels soon, but based on my recent experience of their hot and noisy new temporary home -- a sort of plastic hangar on a building site -- I’m not looking forward to it with any pleasure.

  • Pia Ngere-Liu

    Hi Bill -- my introduction to opera was in this:

    After all these years I still enjoy it.

  • messa di voce

    Which recordings of Seraglio do the Parterriati recommend? I have the Auger/Bohm and the Studer/some conductor, neither of which is really satisfactory.

    • I only have the Beecham but I like it quite well, even though he changes the order of some of the music. It’s been a while since I heard it but from what I recall, Lois Marshall transposes “Ach ich liebte” down (a full step, I believe) so the aria doesn’t become so insanely difficult. The pay-off is that she sing it like buttah. And Simoneau and Frick are ideal as Belmonte and Osmin. I don’t remember the secondary pair much.

      • Krunoslav

        Surely the best secondary pair ever recorded are Popp and Gerhard Unger on the Krips? Frick is older than before, but Rothenberger, though light of timbre, is much better than Lois Marshall, not least in the dialogue. Gedda is a bit stiff compared to a Simoneau or Burrows, but by no means bad. He doesn’t essay “Ich baue ganz”.

        But the young Richard Croft did:

        The Krips set was among the first complete opera sets I ever bought and I still like it a lot. I had Popp autograph the CD booklet ( maybe the only autograph I’ve ever asked for) and she said how much she liked that recording too.

        • Nelly della Vittoria

          Kruno, it seems like no one else is talking about that glorious recording of Richard Croft you posted, so I will — just to say I’ve always loved it, and everything the man ever put on record; it seems to me like this is how the aria should always be sung. In general I’m baffled by audiences’ willingness to tolerate atrocious passagework in other/most tenors, so long as the names are famous and the voices loud.

          • Krunoslav

            Thanks, Nelly

            I imagine you know that his other Belmonte arias are also online!

    • fletcher

      The Jochum recording with Köth and Wunderlich is my favorite, but the Böhm with Auger and Sheier or the Krips with Rothenberger and Gedda are also very good. I’ve heard good things about the Fricsay recording but I haven’t heard it.

      • armerjacquino

        Yes, the Bohm is terrific (Grist, Moll and Schreier all wonderful) but I love the Solti- Gruberova, Battle, Winbergh, Talvela. I think the Christie is terrific too but all of its leads are pretty hated hereabouts.

        Listened to the Nezet-Seguin online and enjoyed Damrau a lot.

        • Krunoslav

          In re: Christie’s tenors. To me, the Oxbridge Wiccan and Iain Paton *both* sound like Pedrillo…

        • fletcher

          Thanks, AJ, I’ll try to find the Christie recording. The only thing I have with Christine Schäfer is the Boulez Pierrot Lunaire and she’s pretty fantastic.

      • Bill

        fletcher -- the Fricsay on DGG as I recall was in Mono sound taped in Berlin with Maria Stader, Rita Streich,
        Ernst Haefliger, Josef Greindl circa 1954. Haefliger
        sings Ich baue Ganz (sometimes cut) and some of the singers have actors speaking their dialogue. At
        its issuance it was considered a top-notch recording of the opera. Stader was a favorite recording artist with
        Fricsay and he used her in many of his recorded Mozart
        operas on DGG (though she practically never sang any
        role on stage).

        There is another Fricsay version from even earlier
        (1949) available on a pirated CD with Sari Barabas,
        Josef Greindl, Anton Dermota, Rita Streich, Helmut
        Krebs from Berlin also but I have never heard it.

        It is interesting that Margaret Price sang a few
        Konstanzes in Vienna (her debut at the Staatsoper) in 1972-3 I believe with Krips conducting -- that would have been interesting to see and hear. I believe there is also a recording with Stich-Randall as Konstanze
        but I have only heard her in the arias -- quite remarkable (if one likes her voice as I do)

        • fletcher

          Thanks Bill. I’m not really familiar with either Haefliger or Stader. Seems like Entführung has several very good recordings available, which is lucky. I’ll see it next season in Los Angeles with Kurzak as Konstanze and Joel Prieto as Belmonte. I’ve never heard of him but it looks like he maintains a busy schedule singing Ferrando and Tamino in Germany.

          • Bill

            Fletsche -- Maria Stader was an Hungarian born
            lyric sopranos (original name -- Molnar) who I believe
            was adopted by Swiss parents, hence her nationality
            was Swiss. She was of very small stature and therefore
            rarely sang in staged opera performances but rather
            preferred the concert platform. Her voice carried very well but was not particularly powerful and she had
            an upward extension specializing in Mozart, Bach and the like. She only sang once at the Vienna Opera at the second premiere of Zauberfloete in 1948 with Krips conducting -- the Queen of the Night following Lipp.
            She sang a number of times in the early Mostly Mozart
            concerts in Lincoln Center.

            Ernst Haefliger was Swiss and sang opera in Zurich and Berlin but his greatest fame (other than a number of notable recordings) was in singing Bach and Schubert lieder. Of course he had wonderful rivals at the time, Dermota, Wunderlich, Schreier, Patzak, Simoneau and others. He recorded extensively for DGG including a very lyrical (but beautifully sung) Florestan with Fricsay conducting.

        • armerjacquino

          Price recorded a highlights disc of Konstanze from Glyndebourne. She’s quite magnificent but for some reasons they decided against recording ‘Marten Aller Arten’ for that disc (although she did record it on a recital album). Ryland Davies is a nice, if not special Belmonte and the Blonde, Danielle Perriers, has the strongest French accent singing in German you could ever imagine. Try the words ‘Welche Wonne, Welche Lust’ while doing a Piaf impression and you’ll get close to it.

          I have the live Stich-Randall recording and I think it’s the best work I’ve heard from her, quite glorious singing. The rest of the cast doesn’t do it for me, although of course a LOT of people like Gedda more than I do.

          • Krunoslav

            “the Blonde, Danielle Perriers, has the strongest French accent singing in German you could ever imagine. Try the words ‘Welche Wonne, Welche Lust’ while doing a Piaf impression and you’ll get close to it.”

            I heard la Perriers in this role in Paris when I was at university and she was risible; she played it like a little sexpot parody of a French maid out of Feydeau, and still could not prounounce a single word of the text. As a Mozartean: she should have been shot.

            The rest of the cast was very good: Christiane Eda-Pierre ( off form in the first act but she recovered wonderful in II and III), Ryland Davies who was very very musicianly and fluid, plus Norbert Orth ( good) and Kurt Moll, sensational) whom I knew from these parts at the Met the year before). Serge Baudo was not illuminating in the pit but Paul-Emile Deiber ( Christa Ludwig’s 2nd husband) made the Pasha quite a presence.

    • Arianna a Nasso

      It’s worth complimenting your listening experience with one of the recordings that restore some additional music -- more coloratura for Konstanze and Belmonte and a march in act 1. I think Harnoncourt/Teldec was the first and Christie/Erato does as well -- not sure about Gardner/Archiv or Hogwood/Decca. Some use early instruments at lower pitch.

  • I’m no vocal pedagogue but based on Applby’s Ferrando in Toronto (including some of the rehearsals I heard), I don’t think he should be singing Mozart, and certainly not in a huge house like the Met. His vocal colour suits the music but I think it strains him technically. His Ferrando was quietly sung throughout, because his voice seemed to strain anytime he sang above mezzo-piano. Once or twice when he attempted to sing forte on a high note, the voice either cracked or sounded pressured. He has sounded good in other roles so maybe Mozart is just not his thing. Maybe there’s too much singing in the passagio that exposes a less than perfect technique. Thoughts?

    Thanks for another great review, Christopher.

    • marshiemarkII

      That is a fascinating data point kashie, mille grazie. I have seen him do nothing but stunning things, a marvelous Bartered Bride with Levine and Layla Claire, when he was still in the Lindemann, a beautiful Beethoven Mass in C, a mind-bogglingly good David in Meistersinger, very unexpected given how well his voice projected, and the stamina he showed, over the Wagner orchestration. And then his career-breakthrough role as Tom Rakewell, which was awesome. And yet, I already said that I cannot disagree with any of the less than stellar assessments offered at parterre these past few days. So I jotted it down to a rough patch, maybe some unannounced indisposition, etc. But your assessment above is a bit more serious, as it indicates maybe an inability to do justice to the role for whatever reason, he was much better in Act III than the previous two, but still less than great. It will be interesting to see if it improves with the run. Ben Bliss was absolutely marvelous in a Lindemann first act complete run, a year ago or so, gorgeous!

      • Marshie: I was really looking forward to his Ferrando. I’d thoroughly enjoyed his Hylas in the TROYENS broadcast and I recall liking his Tom Rakewell as well (though I don’t think I heard the whole thing). He did a lot of careful singing as Ferrando. The voice is lovely and would seem to suit Mozart to a tee on the surface…

      • marshiemarkII

        kashie, yes the Ferrando with the divines Layla and Wallis Giunta! right? that is even more interesting still then. Where those Cosi after the Meistersinger?!?!!?! I am starting to wonder………
        The Meistersinger was in November/December 2014 if I am not mistaken.

        • Yes, Claire and Giunta were a dream pair of sisters. This was in Jan/Feb 2014.

          I’d forgotten about his David in Meistersinger which was also good.

        • marshiemarkII

          OK so that was before the Meistesinger so the theory I was insinuating does not hold… so perhaps Mozart presents some special perils for him.

          By the way, what happened to Giunta, not much has been heard from her since she left the Lindemann. I absolutely adored everything she ever did at the Lindemann, and when she finally did her showcase Dorabella, I thought it was the richest, most even, most gorgeously produced voice in a long time. And easily the best Dorabella I’d heard live!!!!! I imagined she’s be back at the Met soon, for something bigger than Contessa Ceprano, but so far nothing. I wonder what happened, do you know? I’d love to hear her again!

          • Krunoslav

            Giunta seems ti have a Fest contract in Leipzig- Angelina, Cherubino, Siebel, the SALOME Page, that kind of thing.

            Also, this October she;ll do Dido with Opera Atelier in Toronto:

            http://operaatelier.com/season/16-17-season/

          • Kruno beat me to it.

          • marshiemarkII

            Mille grazie both of you, some of the roles seem early Hanna Schwartz, interesting. Good to know she is doing the German provinces route, I sure hope she will go places, she is so wonderful, so healthily produced a sound!

            • catalina

              It seems she will also be singing the title role in Cenerentola for Opera North next season, as well as reprising it for Leipzig. Perhaps she is moving more into the Rossini repertoire? http://www.operanorth.co.uk/news/2016-17-new-season-announcement
              I saw she has a Seven Deadly Sins with the symphony in Toronto in 17. Quite eclectic.

  • laddie

    Bravo Christopher! Great review. I love this opera, but inevitably almost always dislike the slapstick treatment. The Paris production was sadly inadequate but I very much enjoyed the Glyndebourne production. Reverse for the singing; the singers in Paris were marvelous!

    • Paris was outright grotesque. We really did leave at the interval.

  • Ruby

    Christopher: I read your wonderful review after I went to the performance April 27 and thought I myself had an off night since I felt all you wrote about the singing, acting, etc. I was especially disappointed by Paul Appleby who I had heard and loved in “Rake’s Progress”, “2 Boys”, and the recital he gave recently in Zankel Hall. Maybe after listening to several “Roberto Devereux” and “Elektra” performances with their glorious singing, the entire evening felt very provincial to me and frankly, quite boring. Talking to a friend afterwards, she conveyed the same feelings to me.

  • Krunoslav

    Don’t know if anyone else went to ENTFUEHRUNG last night, but I did and Ben Bliss, a scheduled step-in, sang a lovely Belmonte, all its pitfalls surmounted as if water falling off a log, with consistently airy, beautiful tone and great breath control. He also seemed 100% at home on the stage, moving very well.

    A very fine assumption, making me look forward to his other future leading roles (and the HOLLAENDER Steuermann next year).

    • PCally

      I was there, having been told to go when Bliss was singing, and I wholeheartedly agree. He was just smashing and his phrasing and breath control was superlative. I look forward to any chance to hear him again and I’m glad I waited.

      As for the rest, this was my first time seeing this opera (one of my least favorite in the standard rep) and it was a disappointing and pretty dull evening.

    • Nelly della Vittoria

      I was there too. He was good, wasn’t he? Missing that last bit of ardour, maybe, but it was elegantly done. As for Albina, she’s no actress, but she sang her music as if it held few terrors--an illusion of course; it holds very many.

      What bothered me was how neither tenor had quite enough breath or forward projection to make their points in the rapid duets and trios that conclude their scenes; they just disappeared awkwardly. Well no, what bothered me was this flip and mindless production, but everyone’s said that already.

  • 98rsd

    I was there last night. Bliss was wonderful. Ich baue ganz, usually a trial, was effortless and sweet. I started out liking the Konstanze and grew very tired of her unremitting harsh glare. Zero on the charm scale and very little acting or even “acting”. Kim was pretty good--better in this than Hoffman. The rest of the cast, not bad.

  • Will

    Because Paul Appleby was considered a comer, I was a bit disappointed to find that the only performance I could go to was one in which he was not singing. But then came the dire reviews here. Ben Bliss, tall, handsome, a good actor possessed of a truly beautiful lyric voice of ample size and good flexibility, was a joy from the moment he first opened his mouth to sing. For me, he was the class of the evening and the audience was generous in its appreciation.

    Hans-Peter Konig, whose Wagner I have admired, was at sea here. It isn’t necessary to invoke the great Gottlob Frick to see how miscast he was as Osmin. At a certain point in very important moments in the part his lower voice doesn’t fade out as simply drop out into inaudibility. Large amounts of Osmin’s part were totally compromised theerefore.

    I know I’production’s m in the minority, but I actually like the production. I find it light, colorful and stylish and have always liked Jocelyn Herbert’s designs (she also did the MET’s first Lulu sets). As for the stage direction, I agree that if the opera is ever to return to the MET’s repertory, someone with real talent and comic skill needs to rethink the whole thing.