Longing while the iron is hot: Osmin (Petros Magoulas) has his heart set on bubbly Blonde (Clair Ormshaw)

The Abduction from the Seraglio

Welsh National Opera

Birmingham Hippodrome

 ****

THIS tale of kidnap and harems is not one of the world's most popular operas. Let us be honest it is not even one of Mozart's most popular but in the confident hands, and voices, of WNO it is turned into a romp and we are happily taken to the Brian Rix end of the operatic repertoire.

In Mozart's time the Orient Express was probably a fleet-footed camel with half a dozen sacks of spices on its hump but to set The Abduction from the Seraglio (henceforth to be known as Seraglio to avoid the onset of RSI) on the famous train in it heyday in the 1920s opens up a whole range of possibilities.

The set, designed by Allen Moyer, is quite superb, with three carriages on the Orient Express on its journey from Istanbul to Paris. The carriages actually move which is a bit disconcerting at first but adds to the interest without scene changes.

With only a third of the height of the stage visible it is rather like watching a wide screen opera but balanced against the novelty of the set and whisking the action to the 1920s does produce a little niggle, well a big one really, about the plot.

Konstanze (Lisette Oropesa) a Spanish noblewoman and two servants have been captured on their yacht by Turkish pirates and sold to Pasha Selim (Simon Thorpe) who fancies Konstanze like mad.

But after months of searching for her, Konstanze's  fiancĂ© Belmonte (Robin Tritschler) has tracked her down to the Orient Express and tries to organise a rescue.

The original was set in a guarded house on the Mediterranean coast and, although a comedy, it did prey on fears of Europeans of white slavers and sexual trafficking by Johnny Foreigner, or in this case Herr Foreigner, out in the badlands of the Orient.

 That gave the plot tension and the underlying threat of old Selim having his wicked way with a good, moral Christian woman which would have brought on an epidemic of attacks of the vapours among the Viennese ladies at the premiere in 1782. 

CHUGGING ITS WAY

But on a train wending its way across Europe what is to stop the captured trio just walking off, or complaining to customs officials or guards and why would Belmonte have a ship waiting when the train is miles from the sea chugging its way through Europe to Paris? 

On the average train journey these days, of course, they could easily have escaped when the entire case had to transfer to a rail replacement bus service because of engineering works at Lyon or wherever but that is another libretto. I really should get out more.

 Suspend credulity for three hours or so though and back at the  opera one of the reasons it is not performed as often as other Mozart offerings is perhaps that it is probably the most demanding vocally. For example Osmin, the overseer of the Harem, beautifully played for comic effect by Greek bass Petros Magoulas, (seen right going to pot) twice has to go down to a low D in O, wie will ich triumphieren in the third Act - go much lower and only a seismograph can pick it up.

Konstanze is not an easy part either and American soprano Oropesa was impressive in the complex coloratura of Martern aller Arten which also demands some delicate control from the orchestra under Renaldo Alessandrini.

Belmonte as the hero(ish) is no Indiana Jones, if fact he is a bit wet but Tritschler sings the part well with a very clear tone and pitch. He also looks and sounds good with Konstanze which always helps - all too often hero and heroine lovers go together like cake and gravy.

DOUBLE ACT

Along with Magoulas the other stars of the evening were Claire Ormshaw and Wynne Evans who not only had their vocal moments but produced an amusing double act as the servants Blonde and Pedrillo. 

There were some nice comic touches such as Blonde sneaking a few swigs of champagne during one aria, or Pedrillo trying to spike Osmin's drink and the Turkish guards finally had more to do than stand around when they turned into Wilson, Keppel and Betty with a sand dance during Osmin's protest at the Pasha Selim's decision to free everyone.

The result is a light and frothy production that has been through six companies in the USA since 1997 and which is strangely reminiscent of those 1940's romantic comedies with like likes of Cary Grant or Spencer Tracey where you know everything will all turn out right in the end.

It relies heavily on some fine comic acting, with plenty going on in the background and plenty of throwaway visual jokes although the long second act did seem to flag a little.

It wasn't a classic but was still an amusing and enjoyable evening.

Roger Clarke 

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