Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Conductor: James Levine
Producer/Director: John Dexter
Osmin: Hans-Peter König
Konstance: Albina Shagimuratova
Belmonte: Paul Appleby
Blondchen: Kathleen Kim
Pedrillo: Brenton Ryan
After Roberto Devereux’s messy love entanglements and Elektra’s dire family issues, I was more than ready to end my Met season on a markedly lighter note with Mozart's delicious bonbon Die Entführung aus dem Serail. Although I am not a big fan of the Singspiel style, I knew that I could expect a delightful score churning out flawless tunes, not to mention one of the most spectacular arias ever written for sopranos in "Martern aller Arten." And that was more than enough to commit.
Incidentally, last Saturday's matinee was going to be the last performance ever conducted by James Levine as the Met's music director, and just because his stepping down after four glorious decades is probably for the best does not really make it any easier to digest. So it looked like the fluff-filled afternoon I was very much looking forward to after two tragedy-filled operas and one rain-filled week would be more emotional than expected after all. But anything for Jimmy... and Mozart.
Written when Mozart was still a young man on the order of Emperor Joseph II, who wanted to promote German works in a Vienna awash with French culture and Italian operas, Entführung was a big success then and is still regularly performed now. Not that it is overly surprising given its appealing combination of drama and comedy, a suspenseful abduction from a harem, some amusing cultural clashes, the exoticism of 18th century Turkey, and a sizzling score.
The most challenging part of them all is unquestionably Konstanze, with her two widely different and almost equally daunting back-to-back arias in Act II, among many other musical highlights. But soprano Albina Shagimuratova was totally in charge of her role and her voice, displaying plenty of emotional power in "Traurigkeit" and an impressive knack for dazzling fireworks in "Martern aller Arten." Her solid technique and boundless energy allowed her to keep going undefeated all the way to the happy ending.
Up-and-coming tenor Paul Appleby was her ever-gallant and much devoted paramour, the Spanish aristocrat Belmonte. While it seemingly took him a few minutes to get totally into the groove, his encounter with Osmin definitely kicked things into high gear and he never looked back after that. His youthful physique and elegant demeanor nicely complemented his attractive voice, and he had some truly memorable moments, such as his love duet with Konstanze.
Soprano Kathleen Kim brought her endearing diminutive frame, incredibly agile voice and impeccable comic timing to Blondchen, Konstanze's servant who knows how to stand for herself in more ways than one. Her confrontations with besotted Osmin, to whom she has been gifted by the pasha, provided some of the most sparkling exchanges of the afternoon as she cleverly used a potentially appalling situation to come up with her own assertive women’s lib manifesto.
Newcomer Brenton Ryan made a remarkably poised debut as Belmonte's no-nonsense servant Pedrillo. His physical nimbleness and bright singing helped him put together a totally engaging character that exuded freshness and smarts. Although the thought crossed my mind that Mozart had created him mostly as a preliminary draft for Figaro, fact is Pedrillo cannot be so easily dismissed. As the opera went on, it became clear that he was a fully realized individual and significantly contributed to the plot.
But the star of the opera remains Osmin, the harem's bigger-than-life overseer, who is simply too entertaining to be completely despicable. On Saturday afternoon, he also had the distinct advantage of being expertly impersonated by bass Hans-Peter König whose extensively dark range superbly matched the various emotions he was going through, from irrepressible anger at the foreign prisoners to burning love for pretty Blondchen, skillfully negotiating the treacherous line between comedy and tragedy.
The sets and costumes were generally predictable and easy on the eye, with pretty colors and oriental shapes, and then there was the occasional uninspired East-meets-West mélange or fairground-cheap décor item. If the goal was to hint at the presumed splendors of the Ottoman Empire back then, the effort was too timid to be really noteworthy. But at least it did not distract from the action unfolding on that stage.
The score, on the other hand, is unarguably a marvel of solos and ensemble pieces so stunning that they make you completely forget that, more often than not, the various characters are repeating the same thing over and over again. The inclusion of some Turkish instruments helped Mozart subtly convey the exoticism of the setting while still writing with his trademark sophistication. There were "very many notes" indeed, but each and every one of them was completely and utterly justified. The orchestra responded beautifully, delivering a warm and heart-felt performance.
Mozart is one of James Levine's favorite composers, and since he was instrumental in bringing Entführung back to the Met in 1979 after more than three decades of being out of the season programs, it was only fitting that he would be conducting it for his farewell appearance as music director.
A touching homage to his unsurpassed career was Osmin evoking the "Kapellmeister" (Conductor) instead of "Stockmeister" (Dungeon Master) during Act I, which immediately sparked quite a few knowing chuckles. And then there were the ever-longer ovations until the final, seemingly endless one. But this is only good-bye as he will be back conducting the orchestra as music director emeritus. Chances are we ain’t heard nothing yet.