Mozart:  Abduction from the Seraglio

New York City Opera-11/20/99

Saturday evening, November 20, Dennis and I were fortunate enough to attend the final performance of Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio at the New York City Opera.  While we normally sit in various sections of the Third and Fourth Rings, for this performance, we were fortunate enough to get a pair of seats in the Orchestra, fourth row, about a dozen seats in from the right.  This production was sung in English, and the personnel was as follows; and whether for singing, acting, or both, quite an accomplished group it was!

Pasha Selim:
Matthew Polenzani
Monte Jaffe
Matthew Chellis
Jonathan Peck
Mary Dunleavy
Lisa Saffer

Chicago born, raised, and trained, Matthew Polenzani possesses a honeyed voice that easily-and beautifully-negotiates the role's tessitura and coloratura.  He is a joy to hear and watch. He delivered "Ich baue ganz", his aria that opens the third act and is often cut because of its difficulty, with both ease and aplomb.  (I request the reader indulge me: even though this performance was sung in English, I have spent close to forty years listening to this opera in German and will refer to the arias via their original titles.)  I recall hearing him as Almaviva in last year's Barber of Seville, and being quite impressed with both his singing and acting in that. Having already made his Metropolitan Opera début, he is scheduled to perform the Italian Singer in upcoming performances of Der Rosenkavalier.

While his acting was both funny and fine, and he did hit all the notes, Monte Jaffe does not exhibit the rich and booming basso profundo-such as those of Martti Talvela and Gottlob Frick--I am so accustomed to hearing in this role.  Occasionally, I even wondered whether his extremely low notes could be heard in the upper reaches of the house.  His diction, however, was not as clear or easily understood as that of most of the other singers.

Matthew Chellis provided us with a delightfully acted and very well sung Pedrillo.  No lightweight he, this midwestern tenor has sung a variety of starring roles in opera companies all over the United States and in Canada.

This brings us to the women, both of whom could not have satisfied us more in their respective roles.  Mary Dunleavy, who has already sung the Queen of the Night, among other roles, at both NYCO and the Met, portrayed a Constanze upon whom it would be well-nigh impossible to improve, both vocally and histrionically.  She is a beautiful woman with a beautiful voice and a technique that allows her to control it as she will.  Every one of her arias was a joy to the ears, but her rendition of that "killer aria", "Martern aller Arten", was just about better-more dramatically effective and vocally thrilling-than I've ever heard before in any opera house.  She even made it sound easy, and this right on the heels of a long and soulful aria yearning for her Belmonte.

Lisa Saffer is a pure delight!  I consider myself most fortunate to have heard her in the title role of Partenope, as Dalinda in Ariodante, and now, as Blonde-all within the space of two seasons.  Her singing, acting, and rapport with the audience are ideal.  Furthermore, she is a master of both Handelian and Mozartian style.  If her voice is small, it certainly has enough focus and direction to reach every nook and cranny of the opera house.  How she would sound at the barn of a Metropolitan Opera, however, still remains to be heard.

Jonathan Peck's Pasha Selim was certainly younger, more handsome, and, definitely more passionate than any I have heard on disc or seen in the opera house.  Most recently, this West Palm Beach native was Lawrence Fishburne's understudy as Henry II in the Roundabout Theatre's production of A Lion in Winter and has done Othello with the Shakespeare Stage Company.

* * * *

Conductor Harry Bicket conducted a most singer-friendly performance.  The orchestra really sounded good and supported the singers in every one of their arias and ensembles. Not once did it overpower them.  There were moments, however, in the overture, where I felt Bicket's speed was excessive and, in the introduction to Constanze's 15-minute tour-de-force, where I found him slowing down the pace to an uncomfortable crawl-to give the singer time to get down to stage level from the upper passageway where she had just sung or soulful yearning for her lover?  These two sections aside, everything sounded the way I thought it should.  Since I am not a musician, nor do I attend performances with a score, I have to rely on recordings and other performances I have heard.

* * * *

The production team consisted of Director, Nicola Bowie, Set Designer, John Conklin and Costume Designer, Constance Hoffman.  The action took place in a single, blue-green, angled set with a passageway halfway up from one wall of the angle to the other and various doors and windows, as well as the central angle, that opened up as needed, usually showing or covered by stylized "Turkish" decorative details.  Why blue-green was chosen, I'll never know.  I think it would have looked better in an off-white.  The stage was occasionally "busied up" with rather clumsy-looking guards (supernumeraries?) and heavily veiled harem members portrayed by dancers.  Also, there were three steps down to the stage level.  With the exception of all those silent extras, the direction was effective.  Costumes were almost timeless, with Constanze and Belmonte in what might be considered late nineteenth/early twentieth century travelling suits and Blonde and Pedrillo dressed in what appeared to be a more fantastic eighteenth or nineteenth century style.  I do not know if this production was worth seeing; but I know it was definitely worth hearing . . . and hearing live in the house!  My, what talent!

Howard in Brooklyn

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Copyright:  © 1999 Howard Levin

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