These days, no matter what country they hail from, Mid-Eastern potentate types with long robes and exotic headgear appear to be the bad guys. Therefore, it seems brave and even somewhat foolhardy for Lyric Opera San Diego to stage Mozart's 1782 comic masterpiece, The Abduction from the Seraglio.
Consider Pasha Selim, the Mid-Eastern ruler in Gottlob Stephanie's libretto. In light of current political tensions and, more importantly, the fact that Selim has abducted a noble woman named Constanze to be his newest wife, it could be a mite difficult to swallow what Mozart is selling: that he's really a compassionate guy.
To clarify for those with an instinct for regional stereotyping: Pasha Selim (bass Gustavo Halley) is a Turk, not part of the Axis of Evil. But as overseer of his harem, he employs a stereotypical baddie, Osmin, a non-singing role played by Lyric Opera's general director, Leon Natker.
"I'm sure it's a sensitive issue," says Natker of the opera's Mid-Eastern characters. "People are concerned, but judging from my own conversations around the country, I don't think that Americans are seeing our current conflict as either a religious war or a racial war.
"Most Americans are above that and really see this as a conflict for our own national security. I'm hoping it's not going to affect how they come to view this particular piece. There's still a good deal of exoticism that is attractive."
Natker points to two trends in late 17th century Vienna that make the opera compelling. First, Turkish music was wildly popular among the Viennese. Second, he says, "there was also a lot of what we would call "unfortunate racial stereotyping.'
"It was very much Stephanie and Mozart's point to show that this Eastern potentate, who is supposedly a Barbarian, and cruel, and has all these many wives, can actually be more magnanimous than the Westerners. The point was not lost on audiences of the time."
Natker and director J. Sherwood Montgomery are not presenting the Pasha as a stereotype, but as a sensible, wise man. Osmin, on the other hand, is simply old and foolish, which has nothing to do with his being Turkish or Islamic, Natker explains.
"He's an old man, he's nasty, and he's chasing after the youngest girl in the harem. The character is really a "Pantalone' straight out of the commedia dell'arte."
In July 1683, almost exactly a hundred years prior to the writing of Abduction, an Ottoman army led by a grand vizier named Kara Mustafa surrounded and bombarded Vienna. The Turks penetrated the city's outer fortifications, but fled when confronted by 70,000 Habsburg and Polish troops.
For 450 years the Ottoman Empire utilized Janissaries, an army that originally comprised captured or conscripted Christian youth from the Balkans. Most converted to Islam. In Mozart's opera, they are the male chorus.
"The Janissaries led the army into battle playing crashing cymbals and triangles. The bass drum was banged with a whip," Natker explains. "It made a big military noise, a frightening noise in the same way that the Scots went into battle accompanied by the sound of bagpipes."
Mozart fashioned the percussive sound of Abduction after the Janissary sound. It was a first for opera, though composer Gioachino Rossini would later copy the style in Turco in Italia ("Turks in Italy") and Italiana in Algeri ("Italians in Algiers").
Lyric Opera's orchestra, conducted by Martin Wright, has no whips, but it does have four percussionists to create Mozart's exotic sound.
Here's the story: The Pasha has kidnapped Constanze (Evelyn de la Rosa) and her retinue, composed of attendant Blondchen (Megan Weston) and Blondchen's boyfriend Pedrillo (Andrew Truitt). Constanze's boyfriend Belmonte (Daniel Ebbers) tries to affect her rescue.
In the first scenes, Pasha Selim is persuasive and definitely appealing to Constanze, who is determined nonetheless to be faithful to Belmonte. Natker says that Pasha's threat of force in Act II is only a contrivance to give the soprano an excuse to sing her fiery, torture-will-get-you-nowhere aria, "Marten aller Arten." In the face of such devotion, the Pasha releases his prisoners.
The cultural and thematic counterpart to Abduction is San Diego Opera's own dark tale of seduction-the West Coast premiere of Tobias Picker's Therese Raquin, which held its world premiere in Dallas in November 2001.
Based on Emile Zola's gruesome tale of infidelity, murder and suicide, Therese is a decidedly tawdry piece that San Diego audiences may find difficult to endure. Franchesca Zambello's expressionist staging (recreated here by Herbert Kellner) is merciless and ravishingly designed.
The title character (Christin Chavez) is wed to her childhood friend Camille and lives with him and his aged mother in 19th century Paris. She becomes infatuated with Camille's friend Laurent, and after the two have an affair, they conspire to drown Camille. Having offed the inconvenient husband, they marry, yet continue to live in the household with Camille's mother (Dame Josephine Barstow). Conflicted by their dastardly deed, the couple's passion turns to hatred, they turn on one another, and Mamma guesses their secret.
Tenor Gordon Geitz was so virile, robust and appealing in his role as Camille in the original production that one wondered why Therese was unhappy. Geitz returns for the San Diego production, but Picker has reportedly revised his role to make it obvious that the marriage between Therese and Camille was never consummated, thereby giving impetus to her overwhelming passion for Laurent (played by Christopher Maltman, touted as "Britain's hottest young baritone"). Karen Keltner conducts the work, sung in English with text projected above the proscenium.