DIE ENTFÜHRUNG AUS DEM SERAIL (THE ABDUCTION FROM THE SERAGLIO)
Komisches Singspiel in 3 acts
Music: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Libretto: Johann Gottlieb Stephanie der Jüngere, after Christoph Friederich Bretzner’s play Belmont und Konstanze
First performed: Burgtheater, Vienna, 16 July 1782
We’re in Turkey, in the mid-16th century, at the palace of the Pasha Selim, the regional governor.
Act I: A square in front of the Pasha Selim’s palace
Belmonte, a young Spanish nobleman, has come to rescue his fiancée Konstanze (same name as the future Frau Mozart) and their servants Pedrillo and his girlfriend Blonde, who have been captured by pirates and sold as slaves to the Pasha. First he has to get past the Pasha’s overseer, the “stupid, surly, malicious” Osmin, who wants to behead, disembowel, hang, impale and immolate any European who comes calling. The Pasha and Konstanze arrive, accompanied by janissaries (Turkish soldiers).
The Pasha tries to persuade Konstanze to love him. She tells him that she respects him, but her heart belongs to Belmonte. With the help of a little fast-talking from Pedrillo, the Pasha engages Belmonte as an architect, and the two Spaniards slip past Osmin into the palace.
Act II: Garden in the Pasha’s palace
Blonde stands up for Women’s Lib, 16th century style; she may have been given to Osmin as his slave, but she’s a free-born Englishwoman! Konstanze tells Blonde how miserable she is. The Pasha threatens to force her to love him, but she is resolute.
Pedrillo tells Blonde that Belmonte has arrived; the escape is on for that night. Hurrah! thinks Blonde. Pedrillo gets Osmin roaring drunk; now that the overseer’s unconscious, they’ll be able to escape.
The two couples are reunited. The women reassure the two men that they haven’t two-timed them with the Turks, and the act ends in a joyful quartet.
Act III: Square in front of the Pasha’s palace
The escape attempt goes wrong. Osmin captures the four fugitives, and rejoices; they’ll be sliced and diced, burnt and beheaded, and other things they won’t enjoy but he will.
Osmin drags them before the Pasha, who sentences them to death when he discovers that Belmonte’s father is his worst enemy, the Governor of Oran (a coastal city in Algeria). The Pasha relents at the end. He releases his prisoners, because he will not stoop to his enemy’s barbarity. He resolves to be better than his enemies, and to be reasonable and compassionate. The Muslim is more civilised than the European would have been. The four Europeans and the Turks (except the furious Osmin) praise his clemency.
The Abduction had everything to please the public: bravura arias, rousing choruses, comedy, and a mixture of Turkish exoticism and lofty Enlightenment idealism.
“Turquerie” in architecture, art and music was “in” in 1780s Vienna. Mozart himself had begun work in 1780 on Zaïde, a first draft of the Abduction about captured slaves in Turkey, while he based his Rondo alla turca on janissary music.
Turkey had once been the enemy; the Ottoman Empire had besieged Vienna in 1529, 1683 and 1739. Now, as the Ottoman Empire lost its power, Turkey had become a fascinating symbol of the exotic East.
Vienna opened diplomatic relations with Constantinople in the eighteenth century. Many Turkish businessmen and merchants lived in Vienna, while the city’s Oriental Academy trained scholars to work in the Ottoman Empire. (See https://blogs.eui.eu/maxweberprogramme/the-orient-in-eighteenth-century-vienna/)
In the Pasha, the opera shows a formerly Catholic, Spanish nobleman who has converted to Islam. The idea wasn’t peculiar; “the action,” Julian Rushton writes, “evokes an earlier period when … crossing between religions was not uncommon.” Respect for Islam, and the idea of different faiths understanding each other, was an Enlightenment tenet. In 1779, four years before Mozart’s opera, for instance, Lessing’s Nathan der Weise presented Christianity, Islam and Judaism as equals and called for greater understanding and harmony between the Abrahamic faiths. (For more information about the West’s positive view of Islam, see Ibn Warraq’s Defending the West.)
The Abduction was a smash hit in Vienna, and Mozart’s greatest stage success throughout Europe during his lifetime. It is, though, weaker than his later operas.
There’s a story that after the first performance, Joseph II turned to the composer, and said: “Too beautiful for our ears, and an enormous number of notes, my dear Mozart.”
“Only as many as are needed, Your Majesty,” Mozart replied.
The music, the Emperor suggested, was too elaborate, too beautiful, for the vehicle. Mozart’s opera was a Singspiel, a popular opera in German, with spoken dialogue rather than sung recit – but some of the numbers, such as Konstanze’s bravura aria “Martern aller Arten”, with its long orchestral introduction, were elaborate Italianate pieces more familiar from opera seria. Mozart suggests that this genre, considered populist, is just as worthy as Italian opera. While the Viennese preferred more sophisticated Italian opera, the humble Singspiel could become something special, as Joseph intended when he established the National Singspiel, a court-supported company to perform German opera and to unify the people, in 1778. Singspiel was in the audience’s own language; it was down to earth; it was funny; and it was human in a way that Metastasian opera seria rarely was, with its heroic or mythical figures singing da capo arias. And Die Zauberflöte, Fidelio and Freischütz will show just how high the genre can rise.
There’s another version of the story where the Emperor tells Mozart: “Too beautiful for our ears, and monstrous many notes.”
The story may be apocryphal, but it reflects what a lot of critics since have felt. The music may be inspired, but the opera itself drags. Denis Forman, in the Good Opera Guide, for instance, called it a gamma plot with alpha music, while Félix Clément, in the 1860s, wrote that the libretto was an unlikely, almost puerile canvas – but the music was graceful.
Some pieces are among Mozart’s most beautiful or spirited, and no number is not at least charming.
Much of the opera, though, seems like a concert, because of its heavy reliance on arias. Belmonte has two arias in the first act alone, while six of Act II’s nine numbers are arias, two of them for Konstanze, one of which lasts more than ten minutes. All the arias are tuneful, and gracefully written for the voice; they skilfully depict character and emotions – but they leave the story unchanged. The opera is as static as the old opera seria: a series of lovely arias linked together by a weak plot. It’s like that section in of Don Giovanni after the sextet where the drama comes to a standstill for half an hour while the minor characters get their second arias, and the audience is impatient to get to the statue scene.
The saving grace, though, is Mozart’s music. Opera was, for Mozart, a vehicle for music, as he wrote while composing the opera:
“In my view, the poetry must be completely the obedient daughter of the music. Why do Italian comic operas please people everywhere, despite their miserable libretti, even in Paris where I myself witnessed their success? Precisely because in them the music reigns supreme, and when one listens to it one forgets everything else.”
He also suggested, though, that the composer and the librettist should work together to create music drama:
“The best thing of all is when a good composer, who understands the stage and is talented enough to make sound suggestions, meets an able poet, the true phoenix; in that case, no fears need to be entertained as to the applause – even of the ignorant.”
Mozart would find that able poet in Lorenzo da Ponte. Their collaborations balanced music with tightly plotted, well-characterised stories. The Marriage of Figaro is deft and brisk, almost Wodehousian in its complex farce leading to a happy ending. Don Giovanni, despite an uneven second act, mixes tragedy and comedy, high and low characters, with the supernatural to astonishing effect. And the bittersweet Così fan tutte, once considered a problem play, treats complex emotions through a schematic comedy of manners, analysing human beings with all the precision of a scientist.
Mozart knew what he wanted; he hadn’t found his ideal collaborator when he wrote the Abduction.
Thomas Beecham’s 1956 recording for Columbia. Lois Marshall (Konstanze), Ilse Hollweg (Blonde), Léopold Simoneau (Belmonte), Gerhard Unger (Pedrillo), and Gottlob Frick (Osmin).