LA Opera’s current production of Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio barely feels like an opera. Sure, it has all the trappings, including a story with musical accompaniment. But the production has more in common with classic comedies from the golden age of Hollywood than with a typical opera. It feels brisk and light, free of the standard opera trappings.
James Robinson’s production (originally staged in 1998) is responsible for much of that feel. The Abduction has been transported from its original 16th century setting and now takes place on the Orient Express in the Roaring Twenties, with an enormous sepia-toned map hanging atop the stage, displaying its twisting journey from Paris to Istanbul. Technically a Singspiel, the connective tissue between big musical numbers is spoken, like a modern musical.
On this train are Pasha Selim (film and television actor Hamish Linklater, in a non-singing role) and his entourage, led by his bodyguard Osmin (Morris Robinson). Selim has purchased three Europeans from marauding pirates: Konstanze (Sally Matthews), as well as her maid Blonde (So Young Park) and Pedrillo (Brenton Ryan). Pedrillo is the valet of Konstanze’s love, Belmonte (Joel Prieto), who has boarded the train in disguise to rescue them. Selim is enamored of Konstanze, and Osmin makes some oblivious passes at Blonde, but both women resist their captors. The set is ideally designed for intrigue: the train is split in half down the middle, which allows us to see multiple cars next to each other and watch as Belmonte hatches a harebrained plot to rescue Konstanze in the next car over. (It involves a knotted bedsheet, like so many botched rescues in film.)
Trains are an important part of classic film comedies—they bring disparate groups of people together. The train compartment is the great unknown, where unsure lovers are introduced for the first time, like in Lubitsch’s Design for Living. But it’s also a cramped, claustrophobic space. Conflicts arise, whether comedic (Twentieth Century) or sinister (Strangers on a Train).
Classic comedies aren’t the only filmic allusions the opera makes. The bisected train makes it hard not to compare the set to Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic (although the original production predated that film). As the far-flung travelers move from car to car, the set slides from side to side, mimicking the feel of a moving camera. Even the framing of the set is reminiscent of a widescreen film ratio; the map covers up the top two-thirds of the stage, just leaving the wide but short train on stage. There’s little depth to the staging, adding to the illusion that we’re just watching a screen.
Morris Robinson’s Osmin is the opera’s most effective source of comedy. He has an extraordinarily violent mind. The mildest of slights results in him threatening to hang, then skin, then decapitate the offending parties, just for good measure. But he’s constantly being thwarted, whether in his attempts to flirt with Blonde or kick interlopers off the train. Osmin’s handlebar mustache and fez-adorned bald head cartoonishly exaggerate his appearance and rob him of any real menace. His impotent bluster is just sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Past productions of The Abduction have used the fact that Osmin is a Muslim, combined with his hilariously over the top lust for violence, to make him a more menacing character as a critique of terrorists or of warped Western views of Islam. Robinson wisely steers clear of that, although he still includes a scene of Osmin reciting his daily prayers. Mozart’s score does a fair bit to humanize Osmin, especially in his opening aria. Rather than being comic, the music is particularly dark and mournful. The comedy is only held at bay for a short time, but by then we’ve already seen that Osmin is more than a simple parody of a Turk, but someone with emotions and desires.
Pasha Selim initially comes off as a brutal tyrant determined to bend Konstanze to his will, aided by his bloodthirsty henchman. He threatens to torture Konstanze until she submits to him, leading to her aria in which she pledges to withstand any torture (movingly sung by Matthews). But Selim’s “tortures” just amount to showering Konstanze with gleaming jewels, luxurious furs, and ornate gowns (somehow she survives that agony). When he captures Belmonte and his prisoners, Selim shows them far more compassion than they would if their fortunes were reversed. Both Muslim characters enter as men of violence and oppression, but their humanity is revealed by the opera’s end.
Before the show started, conductor James Conlon noted that The Abduction from the Seraglio is performed far less than some of Mozart’s more popular operas, not because it’s inferior, but because of its ungainly title. The explanation seemed a little pat at the time, but he may have been on to something. LA Opera’s production of The Abduction is far more fun than most comic operas. The show was three hours long, but it felt as brief as a ninety-minute screwball comedy.