Our Music Director James Conlon obviously relishes the task of doing the pre-game lecture before he takes up the baton for the remainder of the evening. Friday night he sold Die Entführung aus dem Serial to a tony crowd of Angelenos.
He first reminded us all how the Vienna of Mozart’s day was perhaps the most cosmopolitan city of its time with a large population of Muslim immigrants from the East. He also touched on how the path to love and forgiveness is always found in Mozart’s works through the female characters and in this case, most particular, through the final acts of clemency by the Turkish Pasha Selim in the opera’s closing moments.
There was also a lot of talk on key signatures and rhythm and he starts doing the ipod shuffle thing and suddenly your ears are being made aware of the fact that the “Turkish” music Mozart composed and the last movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, composed 50 years later, share a compositional structure and your mouth falls open. Maestro Conlon apparently made his conducting debut the same week he got his first pair of long pants, so he does know a thing or two.
The production, directed by James Robinson of Opera Theater of St. Louis fame, easily manages the charming conceit of updating the action to the 1920’s and placing it all on the private rail car of the Pasha Selim on the Venice-Simplon Orient Express bound for Paris from Istanbul.
The set designed by Allen Moyer started with a drop curtain of Europe a la Francaise and the route of the train as it progressed through the three acts of Mozart’s comedy of manners. The interior of the train was naturally done up to resemble the rich mahogany inlays and plush furnishings the Orient Express is renowned for. A small sleeping compartment stage right connecting to an elegant central private lounge and then an adjoining pantry/kitchen of petite proportions.
It all shifted, very cleverly, from one side of the stage to the other to follow the action, and linked by enough passageways and sliding doors to to aid and abet a wily comic cast. The backgrounds were further enhanced by projections of the countryside whizzing by that only added to the grand cinematic effect. Lighting design by Paul Palazzo was actually kept fairly natural and avoided any deliberately theatrical effects.
More luxe than the set though was the casting, no small feat in an opera that requires some of the composer’s most exacting, to say nothing of athletic, singing. It began with the tenor of Joel Prieto as Belmonte who, having won Domingo’s Operalia competition in 2008, was making his LA Opera debut. Handsomely tricked out as a traveling dandy of the era with ukulele and tennis racket, Mr. Prieto was a paragon of Mozartian vocal virtues with a smooth line, excellent passagework, and endless, endless, breath. During one particularly impressive moment of super-respiratory exhibitionism he actually glanced at his watch to the hilarity of the audience. His is a voice of real quality and although he made a bit of heavy weather in his last act aria the rest of his performance was literal perfection. He’s also dashingly handsome and made an appealing and sympathetic character of the Spanish nobleman rather than falling into standard “handsome hero” mode.
Sally Matthews, also making her LA Opera debut, has a host of other very impressive international credits. Her’s is a full lyric soprano with a tremendous amount of focus and point at the top that generated real excitement when she ascended the staff. The middle voice is denser with a dark bottom that she didn’t ever push. Though, sadly she had no trill to speak of, she always landed square on pitch she sailed through some of Mozart’s most challenging music with dash and dexterity. Musically she provided a solid anchor in the ensembles whilst cutting a graceful figure in a series of stunningly designed ensembles courtesy of Anna R. Oliver. She was poise itself during Act I’s, “Ach ich leibte” but the double-barreled arias of the second act presented the usual staging problems. Here “Martern aller arten” had its threatened “tortures” presented comically as a dizzying plunge into luxury temptations including perfumes and couture gowns, ending with the soprano swathed in floor-length sable.
The “downstairs” couple of Blonde and Pedrillo were given to LA Opera Young Artist alums So Young Park and Brenton Ryan. Ms. Park brought her formidable gifts to the Queen of the Night last year and her deft comedic turn here was charming with a flash of backbone when necessary. In spite of her dazzling upper extension the voice is really sounds like it’s headed to full lyric soprano and it carries with a beautiful ease into the theater. She also knows how to work an English maid’s outfit. Mr. Ryan was agile in the physical bits and gave ample vocal support during the ensembles. His last act serenade to the guards, using Belmonte’s ukulele no less (pizzicato strings in the orchestra), was a delight.
Osmin was the formidable Morris Robinson, recently our Oroveso in Norma. His stature alone would be recommendation enough for the part of the Overseer yet his comedic gifts were just as bountiful as his bass voice. He proved the perfect foil for Ms. Park and, most especially, Mr. Ryan. Perfectly costumed as a gentleman butler with vest and cravat for the first two acts with the addition of harem pants he had a magnificent gold dressing gown for the last act with embroidery.
The character of Pasha Selim poses some dramatic challenges that were well met by actor Hamish Linklater. Playing perhaps too much of the fop in the first act he managed a creditable outrage and magnanimous transformation for the finale.
Maestro Conlon’s nimble support in the pit can’t be underestimated and the orchestra plays their Mozart now as to the manner born. He breathes with his singers and is the antithesis of the fussy Mozartean. Always keeping things moving forward. His tempos are well judged and the balance he gets between wind and strings and horns is near perfection. It sounds so good in the first moments you have to convince yourself it’s live. The highlight of the evening was undoubtedly the quintet at the finale of Act II with the director’s most inspired staging moments coupled with a concentration of music making that left the audience spellbound.
The evening’s only conceit to verisimilitude was the fact that the chorus was relegated to the station platform outside the windows of the carriage. Not ideal but they made it work.
An exceedingly handsome cast and production that takes us on a journey both musical and emotional and since this is a co-production with Houston Grand Opera (where it’s already played), Boston Lyric Opera, Opera Colorado, Lyric Opera of Kansas City, and Minnesota Opera, there’s a good chance it’s whistle-stopping somewhere close by you soon.