Homegrown Mozart from Madison Opera Tastier Than Ever

Abduction from the Seraglio warms up the Capitol Theater

 

We are often admonished to “buy local,” but to the degree this can be done in the world of opera, it’s a real rarity. Even the largest companies still co-produce new works and new stagings with other companies, and in the case of regional companies, such as our much admired Madison Opera, sets and sometimes costumes are frequently rented from other opera houses. There is nothing wrong with that, it’s simply a matter of economics (and let it be said again that general director Kathryn Smith has a gift for matching pocketbook to fine sets—usually in a traditional staging, by the way; yes, in this corner, that’s a compliment!).

But when Madison Opera unveiled their first-ever staging of Mozart’s scintillating The Abduction from the Seraglio at the Capitol Theater Friday night, every bit of it was theirs: the sets and lighting were designed by Anshuman Bhatia, in his Madison Opera debut, and locally constructed. Karen Brown-Larimore’s costume work has been lauded regularly here for many seasons, but she really nailed it this time, with dazzling raiment for the harem ladies and stylish 18th-century garb for both the Turkish rulers and western European visitors. Jan Ross also did her usual excellent work with wigs and make-up.

Yet the best news of all is that the singers enlisted for this tricky mix of virtuosic vocalism would have made the night memorable just standing still and singing in traditional concert dress. Unlike most Madison Opera productions, this one did not feature relative youngsters making their local debuts, but relative youngsters who have already delighted Overture Center (and Madison Opera in the Park) audiences. To put them in costume, give them a flexible and attractive set—and then put them at the disposal of director Alison Moritz, who was making her Madison Opera debut, resulted in a recipe that satisfied on every level.

Add in the fact that the work was being done here for the first time, and we had the best of all worlds: a great and still relatively neglected work presented here (and in the right space—the Capitol Theater is roughly the same size as Vienna’s Burgtheater, where the work was premiered in 1782. It was a bona fide hit, receiving well over a hundred performances in Vienna, and several hundred more throughout central Europe. But it can be problematic, particularly in the present age; the basic set-up is that a Spanish nobleman’s betrothed, Konstanze, her English maid, Blonde and the latter’s lover, Pedrillo, were taken at sea by pirates, then sold to the Pasha Selim in Turkey. The nobleman, Belmonte, has tracked them down, and endeavors to rescue them. The Pasha has been gently trying to coerce the affections of Konstanze, to no avail, while his strongman, Osmin, has been frustrated in his pursuit of Blonde. The action opens with Belmonte’s arrival, and if you took away the exotic locale, one would be left with a typical “rom-com” of the late 18th-century.  The work can be tricky though in its original trappings—and even if one skirts those fine lines of sexist and borderline racist humor as deftly as Moritz, there is still the real danger of playing the comedy too broadly. Moritz pulls that off neatly too, but couldn’t possibly have been as successful without eager young singers who not only can act, but apparently relish the opportunity.

Technically Abduction is a singspiel, arias and ensembles with spoken dialogue interspersed, and Madison Opera has continued the eminently logical and successful procedure of surtitling the German lyrics, and having the dialogue in English. All the principals managed the dialogue as easily as the singing…which in the end, is really what opera is about. So, here come the major kudos:

Amada Woodbury was here as Pamina in The Magic Flute, but she had a greater opportunity as Konstanze to fully wield a voice lithe and powerful. One never thought to question her stamina or accuracy in the great aria closing Act I, and she was careful not to overbalance a reliable David Walton as her rescuer (both pictured above, courtesy of James Gill photography). It is no surprise to learn that one of Woodbury’s upcoming gigs is as the Rhinemaiden, Woglinde, in Wagner’s Das Rheingold at the Metropolitan Opera.

If one were to give an award for best combination of vocal prowess and gift of humor, it’s nearly a tie between Ashly Neumann (she was making her company debut, along with Brian Belz, in the relatively small vocal role of the Pasha) and the Pedrillo of Eric Neuville. We’ll give Neumann the gold medal just on the basis of pulling off the more difficult singing duties, but both of them were a non-stop delight. Matt Boehler is Osmin, a classic villain-we-love-to-hate. He has the imposing mien for the role, and more crucially, has plenty of true depth to the low (really low!) notes that Mozart peppered his part with. The mind boggles at the thought of the range of roles Boehler might eventually get to tackle.

Maestro John DeMain had his work cut out for him, as the Madison Symphony was placed behind the set (which had openings in the wall, but other than DeMain, mostly hid the players). The singers of course could see him on monitors facing the stage action. This technique has been used before to good effect, and one can’t quite explain why on this occasion the MSO sounded even warmer and more precise than usual, despite their distance and different placement vis-à-vis the audience. We’ll just have to credit the maestro (who knows this work) and his nearly three dozen players for relishing this wonderful music.

To return to the stats, though; Abduction never even was staged at the Met (ok, that’s not the right-sized house!) until 1946, and then didn’t return for over thirty years. Madison’s mounting is the only one in the U.S. this season. I never came across it until the mid-1990s, when I worked at Los Angeles Opera. I was smitten at once, attending at least two each of rehearsals and performances. But you, dear readers, have only one more shot to see it soon, and that is Sunday, February 11 at 2:30 pm. It’s guaranteed to warm up a mid-February weekend!

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