Review: Waut Koeken’s Iconoclastic Strasbourg “Seraglio” – Opera National de Rhin, May 21, 2011

On a warm Alsatian spring evening, I traveled to one of the Rhineland’s famed “candy box” opera houses, the 1374-seat Theatre Municipal, home of the Opera National du Rhin of Strasbourg, France. The Theatre Municipal’s 190 year history includes its destruction during the Siege of Strasbourg in the 1870 Prussian invasion that ended Napoleon III’s Second French Empire.

With Alsace governed by Germany for the next 39 years, the faithfully reconstructed opera house boasted such legendary conductors as the German composer Hanz Pfitzner (“Palestrina”), the Germans William Furtwaengler [see Arthur Bloomfield’s Guest Commentary on mid-20th Century Conductors, Part 4: Wilhelm Furtwaengler] and Otto Klemperer, and the Hungarian George Szell.

[Below: the Theatre Municipal, home of the Opera National du Rhin; resized image of print STK018/lps4074 from ]

My objective was to see the realization of the thoughts of the Belgian-born production designer Waut Koeken, now in his mid-30s, about the first great operatic success of Wolfgang Mozart, then in his mid-20s, “Die Entfuehrung aus dem Serail”.

[Below: Production designer Waut Koeken; resized image, based on a production photograph, from the Staatstheater Nurnberg.]

Some Personal Intellectual Preparations for the Koeken Concept

In the last few weeks, I have been reading works by two controversial mid-20th century British authors, A. J. P. Taylor’s The Course of German History and Brigid Brophy (Lady Levey)’s Mozart the Dramatist. Both led me to some fresh thinking about the 26 year old Mozart’s opera on a Turkish theme, which I have regarded as a much more substantive work than its reputation in some circles. (See my review at Cornelius Meister’s Admirable “Abduction”: San Francisco Opera – October 11, 2009).

Taylor gave minimal attention to Mozart, other than to list him and Haydn and Beethoven as the exemplars of Roman Catholic German culture. But he did give great importance to the geopolitical initiatives of the Austrian Emperor Joseph II, who wished that the Habsburg Dynasty, of which he was head, to take the leadership in organizing the fragmented German-speaking communities into a German nation under Austrian leadership.

Towards this end, the Emperor sponsored the Nationalsingspiel contest that attracted the young Mozart to the idea of a German opera on a comic theme. Since there was very little tradition governing such compositions, Mozart, working with a respectful librettist, was able to employ his sublime creative talent to creating a new type of opera.  Had Joseph II’s ambitions – pro-Austrian and by default, anti-Prussian – succeeded, Taylor assures us, Germany’s subsequent history would have been much different. But “Seraglio” was the successful result of Joseph II’s failure in cultural politics.

Brophy’s work, with its immersion in classicial Freudian psychoanalytic theories, spent some time, as expected, on the relationships between the characters in Mozart’s “Abduction from the Seraglio”. I confess to a reluctance to embrace most of Brophy’s application of Freudian psychology to Mozart’s dramas. (For example, I will not concede her argument that Don Giovanni suffers from an Oedipal complex and has killed his father – represented by the figure of the Commendatore – to sexually conquer Donna Anna, whom he mistakes for his mother.)

But after reading Brophy’s Freudian analysis of Mozart’s operas, I began to be struck by how different “Seraglio” is from virtually all of the operas that predate “Nozze di Figaro”. Love and nuptials in the operas of Handel, Vivaldi and even the reformer Gluck are formulaic expressions of idealized love. The two pairs of lovers in “Seraglio” recognize each other as sexual beings and, at one point in the opera, even question each other about their fidelity. How did the women spend all that time in the harem without getting into the spirit of the place? How did the men spend all that time around the harem women without sampling some of the wares? One does not ask such questions without suggesting that the questioner regards the other person as potentially willing to commit such a transgression.

[Below: a turn of the 18th century representation of a Sultan’s harem; resized image, based on the Jean-Baptiste van Mour oil on canvas painting, from the Azize Taylan Collection, Istanbul.]

Brophy analyzes Mozart’s opera not only from the psychological standpoint, but also from their sociological. She is sensitive to the power relationships throughout the Mozart operas, particularly between the “liberated” Susanna in “Nozze di Figaro” when she is sexually stalked by the aristocrat, Count Almaviva.

One can build on Brophy’s sociological theses and construct a list (and I have done so) of the “sexually active” aristocrats – Belmonte and Konstanze in “Seraglio”, the Count and Countess Almaviva and (by the end of the opera) their aristocratic page, Cherubino, in “Figaro”; Don Giovanni, Donna Elvira and the lovers Don Ottavio and Donna Anna (yes, their sexual activity is open to debate, but I’ll return to this subject this coming October) from “Don Giovanni”; and Don Alfonso, Fiordiligi and Dorabella in “Cosi fan Tutte”.

We can enumerate the sexually active servants – Blonde and Pedrillo in “Seraglio” and Figaro and Susanna in “Figaro”; one suspects also Leporello (“Don Giovanni”) and certainly Despina (“Cosi fan Tutte”). Only the peasant lovers Zerlina and Masetto hail from a class other than aristocrat and servant.

Sex and Class in Koeken’s “Seraglio”

Koeken, perhaps more than any other person who has studied the opera, sees it as a story about “relationships”. If Zerbinetta from Richard Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos” were called in to explain it, she might say that it is about two couples, each of whose women has been tested by the attentions of another man, but who decide at the end to stay with their original beaus.

In Koeken’s presentation of the story, the master-servant relationship virtually disappears. Belmonte and Pedrillo are side-kicks without the distinctions of aristocrat-servant clothing, but are main men – two dudes who hang together. Their concern is bedroom stuff about themselves and their women, that only the closest of male friends would talk about with each other.

[Below: Pedrillo (Markus Brutscher) and Belmonte (Szabolcs Brickner); edited image, based on an Alain Kaiser photograph, courtesy of the Opera National du Rhin, Strasbourg, France.]

Mozart filled his opera with Turkish trappings – the harem, jannisaries, a benevolent, even morally superior pasha and Mozart’s caricature of the Pasha’s lustful subordinate, Osmin.  But in Koeken’s conception these are all allegorical images.  The janissaries and other Turkish choristers appear in one scene in European dress as if in a kind of masked ball, but their final chorus is in the orchestra pit. What appears in place of turquerie in the production’s sets and costumes are canopied four poster beds, that are the symbols for all the relationship ills. The two characters that Mozart thought to be Turks, the Pasha and Osmin, were respectively the elegantly seductive pursuer of Konstanze and the rougher trade that intrigued Blonde.

[Below: Blonde (Daniela Fally) enjoys some sexual banter with her captor, Osmin (Reinhard Dorn); resized image, based on an Alain Kaiser photograph for Opera National du Rhin, Strasbourg.]

During the overture an aggressively physical pantomime of Belmonte and Konstanze takes place in and around a four poster canopy bed – the elephant in the room – that symbolizes the couple’s “intimacy issues”. That they are not alone in this is made clear by other canopy beds visible beyond the scrim. Such beds come into view at various times during the opera. At its end, when all of the loose ends of the plot are resolved, the canopy bed representing the Belmonte-Konstanze relationship reappears at center stage. Their issues behind them, Belmonte and Konstanze  jump onto the bed and fall into each others’ arms.

[Below: Belmonte (Szabolcs Brickner, left) discusses relationship issues with Konstanze (Laura Aikin); edited image, based on an Alain Kaiser photograph, courtesy of the Opera National du Rhin.]

Some of my regular readers will wonder what to think of this description of the Koeken view of Mozart’s opera. Not only do I believe that it works dramatically, but I think the “harem as allegory” idea is a brilliant stroke that manifests the psychological dimensions to the opera that I believe are inherent in it. The casting of the two pairs of European lovers was commendable, not only vocally, as will be described below, but for their stage presence and appearance as well.

Opera performances in the 21st century abound with young singers who are physically attractive and that proves to be an audience-pleasing asset for many operas. In fact, in a revival (and I believe the production should be seen in climes far beyond Eastern France), it might add to the psychological drama to cast the Pasha and Osmin as irresistably handsome “other men” (the one suave, the other boorish but cute), so that Belmonte and Pedrillo have genuine reason for concern about the potency of their rivals as they fight love’s wars, mano a mano.

Notes on the Vocal Performance

There are five singing roles in the opera. (The Pasha is a speaking part, not because Mozart wanted it to be, but because the company that performed the opera lost the artist who originally expected to sing the role. In those days, you wrote the opera for the voices that were available to sing it.)

[Below: Belmonte (Szabolcs Brickner, far left) expresses his relationship concerns as (from left to right) Konstanze (Laura Aikin), Pasha (Christoph Quest, partially hidden behind canopy bed), Osmin (Reinhard Dorn), Blonde (Daniela Fally) and Pedrillo (Markus Brutscher) reflect on their own feelings; edited image, based on an Alain Kaiser photograph, courtesy of the Opera National du Rhin.]

I had seen only one of the artists before – Laura Aikin as Anne Trulove in San Francisco [see The Remaking of San Francisco Opera, Part IV: “The Rake’s Progress” – December 9, 2007]. Aikin proved an effective Konstanze, with her beautifully controlled vibrato and spot-0n coloratura fireworks. Daniela Fally was a vibrant Blonde in this classic soubrette role, elder sister of a century plus of kindred spirits from Despina in Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte” to Adele in Johann Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus.

[Below: Blonde (Daniela Fally, left) and Konstanze (Laura Aikin); edited image, based on an Alain Kaiser photograph, courtesy of the Opera National du Rhin, Strasbourg.]

Even though it has been the custom in many houses to cast the two tenor roles, combining a heavier weight Belmonte with a lighter Pedrillo, Strasbourg provided two lyric tenors, the Hungarian tenor Szabolcs Bickner and the engaging Bavarian tenor Marius Butscher. Having two equally-weighted tenors singing Belmonte and Pedrillo proved to be revelatory. Combined with the Koeken’s class abolition between the pair, the opera is transformed.

The remaining singing cast member, Reinhard Dorn, was an effective Osmin vocally. Selim Pasha was directed to exhibit a much greater range of emotions than is expected of the actors who play this part, but Christoph Quest met the challenge admirably. The conducting by Rinaldo Alessandrini was lively and well paced. The sets by Yannik Larivee and costumes by Carmen Van Nyvelseel were always interesting.