The Best Konstanze Ever in a New, Engaging Production
Ann Athema | Connecticut | 10/10/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This is not your grandfather's "Entführung," and while there are lots of good productions available on DVD more traditionally produced than this one, this one has something none of the others have: Christine Schäfer as Konstanze, but more about her soon.
Although it's the first of Mozart's big five,"Die Entführung"(also known as the "too many notes, Herr Mozart" opera as Joseph II characterizes it in "Amadeus") contains many of the themes, both musically and dramatically, that Mozart brings to fruition in "Die Zauberflöte," constancy, fidelity to ideals, and most of all, forgiveness and reconciliation. The plot was probably old when the Greeks were just starting out in the amphitheatres: Young lovers are separated, the woman chosen by her captor to be his beloved, and she must choose or suffer unspeakable torture . . . Mozart was writing this as a young avatar of the Enlightenment, hence the forgiveness: I won't spoil the plot too much if I tell you that the heroine goes home with her original fella . . . This production is set in the contemporary middle East, not specifically somewhere in Turkey, but some Turkish music, plaintive flute and percussion primarily, is interpolated. Mozartean purists will not approve of this in its use between the vaudeville quartet at the end and the last "Praise to Pasha Selim" but I personally found it very touching. Partly due to the hoariness of the plot, partly due to the attempts to give more weight to the Eastern point of view, there are lapses in logic, but on the whole, the concept succeeds, in large part due to the conviction of the fine young singing actors(and the non-singing actor playing the Pasha), as well as to the fine musicianship of the conductor, Marc Minkowski, leading the Salzburg Festival Orchestra. The young American tenor, Paul Groves, is a slightly puppyish Belmonte, but manly at the same time, and if his singing isn't as elegant as some others in the role(and it might be by now,this was filmed in 1997)his sincerity and sweetness are winning, and his voice is beautiful. I love the way, when as Belmonte he finally sees Konstanze, he runs to her, catches her up, swings her around , then kisses her ardently, but gently. Be still, my aged heart! The bass Franz Hawlata is excellent as Osmin, the keeper of the keys to the Seraglio, who is awarded, as it were, with Konstanze's--well, I guess she'd be her personal assistant, today, but traditionally she's Konstanze's maid, Blonde. He is the Pasha's confidant and guard, and he gets the underlying menace just right, while never overplaying the built-in buffoonery. There are Osmins with darker, deeper voices, but Hawlata, too, has a sweetness and humanity which textures the character richly. Andreas Conrad as Pedrillo, also captured with Konstanze and Blonde, is a dead ringer for the American actor Fisher Stevens, and sings the role very well, and particularly romantically in the serenade that puts the re-abduction, that is, when Belmonte and Pedrillo decide to get "the girls" out, in motion. The subtitles, by the way, are pretty good, not too random as they often are, and in fact, owe a good deal to the gold standard version by Ruth and Thomas Martin--however, because of the plot changes, there are some things that a small DVD insert would help to know: for example, turning the old plot's plain old act of piracy, which results in the purchase of Konstanze, Blonde and Pedrillo by the Pasha, into an act of terrorism by having Konstanze and the others deliberately kidnapped by the Pasha so that he can force negotiations, isn't particularly clear in the spoken dialogue. One of the pitfalls of this concept . . . Anyway here's where the 5 stars come in: first, Malin Hartelius, the young Swedish soprano who plays Blonde. I adore this opera and have heard it in opera houses, including the Met, all over the place, and so many different recordings--she is the best Blonde I've ever seen(although Lillian Watson, the great Lillian Watson, is a close second). She has everything--a beautiful, creamy, supple voice, wonderful looks, terrific comic timing, and a lovely, incisive and sympathetic energy. She's in the Jonathan Miller "Zauberflöte," which is fascinating, and she is a touching, spirited, golden-voiced Pamina. The Pasha is played by the handsome young Akram Tillawi, who also staged the Turkish movement in the harem scene and elsewhere. He is attractive, and you can see why Konstanze, as the subtitle has it, admires him but doesn't trust him. He is furious with himself for falling in love with someone who was just supposed to be a bargaining chip. Often the Pasha is portrayed as the passionate, sensual potentate who tries to overmaster Konstanze physically--see Oliver Tobias passionately kissing the wonderful Konstanze of the great Inga Nielsen in the 1987 George Solti-Covent Garden "Entführung"--and just before she launches into a splendid "Martern Aller Arten," too--but Tillawi plays him as a distracted intellectual. He doesn't do anything too threatening physically(unless loudly quoting love poetry in Arabic to poor Konstanze after she has fallen into an exhausted slumber after "Traurigcheit,"falls under that category), but he is truly in love with her. When he touches her, it is with great tenderness(except once), and when he finally (Plot spoiler! Oh, I'm kidding)gives her freedom back to her, and his life back to Belmonte, he displays the pain he suffers because of the culture clash and the fact that Konstanze is, well, constant. The 26-year old-Mozart was, of course, telling little Konstanze Weber, using the high voice of Cavileri, that he would be true to her to the death, and beyond, no matter what tortures awaited. If he were alive today, Mozart would be in tears of joy hearing the Konstanze of the astonishing Christine Schäfer. Musically, she is a phenomenon--in Konstanze's first aria, "Ach, Ich Liebte," she immediately gains our sympathy--I've never felt Konstanze's mourning and loneliness so clearly as when I hear Schäfer sing of it. In fact, her entire portrayal is new and fresh--all the virtues of Konstanzes past, with added subtleties. It's a given that Konstanze is sad, and afraid, but brave and defiant at the same time. We see this Konstanze's courage despite her real trauma and her real danger--her personal autonomy has been violated and her physical violation is perhaps imminent. Schäfer makes this so immediate that it is a blow to the heart. Schäfer's Konstanze is naturally simpatico. In this staging we see the life of the seraglio--the women all have characters, there are some little girls(presumably the Pasha's daughters, let's not go there), and one magnificent lady who is obviously his mother--everyone of them seems to love and want to protect Konstanze. Perhaps they have come to be in the Seraglio against their wills, and have become resigned. Konstanze will not and cannot do that--Schäfer's retort to the Pasha,when he says he wants her love of her own free will and she should take her time,but tomorrow's the day, is a tart and slightly sarcastic reading of "give me a few days to forget my sorrow." Then she gives him such a look--and marches off stage. Her "Traurigcheit," often sung by Konstanze alone on the stage, is sung in the midst of a sort of "girls night in" party in the harem--her distress and anguish slowly draw everyone in. The Pasha's mother finally caresses her tenderly as she falls into the aforementioned exhausted slumber. It's funny, but silly--PashaMom shushes the harem ladies, and they all try to shush the audience, but it cheers anyway. And then, shortly thereafter, comes "Martern, aller Arten," that famed and fiendish soprano-slayer. There is some odd staging in this production anyway, and this aria, with its 40-bar instrumental intro, is notoriously difficult to stage without exhausting Konstanze. Inga Nielsen got kissed(it's Oliver Tobias, for heaven's sake, so what if she was a bit out of breath); Beverly Sills stomped all over the stage at NYCity Opera and glowered at the Pasha before blasting him into the wings. Schäfer seems to be doing yoga as the 4 instrumentalists actually come onstage to play, and to observe the proceedings. So she is left to sing this most intricate and athletic of soprano solos while running around and over the set--at one point, the Pasha leaves the stage and she has to look for him. Not very satisfying theatrically--but thrilling musically. If Schäfer takes a breath anywhere during it, I'm not aware of it. She is defiant, courageous, laughing at death or torture. This amazing music sings Schäfer as much as she sings it--beautifully.When, after she has left the stage, the Pasha marvels at her courage, we do, too. The camera has pulled back so we discover the Pasha in the orchestra pit(lots of breaking of the fourth wall)--we also see the MUSICIANS applauding Schäfer. She is, not to put too fine a point on it, a knockout.
The gorgeous 3-R quartet(reunion, recrimination and reconciliation) that ends Act Two is exquisitely, passionately sung by the four, and the Act Three duet between Konstanze and Belmonte is exhilarating and so moving. Schäfer's conviction and concentration, and commitment, are heroic. Her singing is angelic.Physically, she is diminutive and attractive,youthful,fiercely intelligent-- a little like the very young Julie Harris, and as intensely talented.
There are things to carp about in this production--name one production without them--but there are so many lovely moments, and silly and odd things, that it is endearing and memorable. The whole cast is terrific, but as you may have guessed, Schäfer is worth the price of the DVD a million times over. Amazon also sells her CD of "Die Entführung," with William Chrisie, Les Arts Florisants, and Ian Bostridge as Belmonte. Get it! If my word's not good enough, look up Alan Blyth's review in the Gramofile section of Gramophone Magazine on line. In fact,click on "Christine Schäfer" on this product page, look up her stuff, and buy all of it. Not everyone loves her Gilda in the Rigoletto at Covent Garden of four years ago, but I do(well, obviously)--she is a Gilda to break your heart. And the Lulu--is there a braver soprano alive than Christine Schäfer? Ransom your first born if you have to. She's the real thing."
Wonderful musically, less so stage-wise
Plaza Marcelino | Caracas Venezuela | 06/04/2005
(4 out of 5 stars)
"The production is well centred within the Mortier ideology during his reign as the Salzburg Fsetival's Director. For this 1997 production, not staged in the Festspielhaus but in the court of the Residenzhof, he hired Francois Abou-Salem as Director, who took full advantage of the opportunity and came out with a late-XX Century updating of the work that frontally addresses the everyday EU-Muslim controversy, with modern day clothing (both western and middle-eastern, depending on where the characters come from), middle eastern athmosphere décors and ambience and considerable tinkering, mostly on the dialogue but also on the music: as for the dialogue, arabic texts are introduced in fair quantity along the modified german text (in which all reference to the Lostados familiy Belmonte belongs to is done away with), and traditional turkish music is introduced in selected spots, more often than not with interesting results but with an important miscalculation when a melody is played between the famous vaudeville and the chorus that closes the work. There is a philosophical issue behind all this, which may be more of an issue to Western Europeans than to people from the Americas or the Far East, where the muslim/christian encounter of cultures and difficulty of understanding that is accompanied by the assimilation or preservation dilemma facing immigrants of Muslim-countries provenance is less of an everyday problem. Any way, the staging is interesting and one may end buying the concept, barbed-wire and gun-toting (Kalashnikovs, of course) thugs and all, but if you are for more traditional stagings, give these considerations a thought before buying this otherwise excellent performance of this wonderful work, for you may end up turning the telly off and just listening to the music. Thence the four stars, as I prefer to award when condering opera DVD's in which the staging won't appeal to all tastes in spite of the DVD's fully deserving the fifth one on its musical merits.
The vocal quintet is outstanding. As in most live performances, one has to let pass the odd imperfection here and there which in a studio performance would be corrected in patch-up sessions; Schaefer is the usual outstanding singer one has come to expect, although some contemporary press reviews suggested she might be singing somewhat stressfully (and what if she is in a couple of notes? the Konstanze role is fiendishfully difficult and cruel to the soprano, who not only must deal with hard coloratura work but must also descend to un-sopranistic lows from which an immediate jump to very hight notes is requested -Schaefer acquits most successfully). Other basses have had better low notes than Hawlata, but he is a very successsful Osmin none the less and an outstanding comedian (the wine drinking scene is a delight and will really make you laugh yet avoids overdoing or uncalled for farce). Hartelius makes for a very credible rebel englishwoman (as self-proclaimed to be by Blonde whilst rebuking Osmin's courting) with striking looks also, and Conrad makes for an heroic-sounding Pedrillo; Groves's voice is sweet and very well suited to the part, but looks less sure of himself, perhaps because of language handling difficulties speciallt in the spoken parts (he's the only non-german speaker among the principals). The Pasha is assumed by an actor of obviuos middle-eastern provenance whose handsome looks impact Konstanze's hardship of choosing most appropriately, an issue well taken care of by Schaefer herself.
The Mozarteum Orchestra play wonderfully (with on-stage solists for the Marten-arie) and are enthusiatically conducted by Minkowski, who reveals himself to have a solid grasp of the mozartian idiom and conducts the work exhuberantly, if a trifle on the fast side. The chorus is rather distantly picked up by the microphones but general sound quality is quite good."
Absolutely super.. beautiful and entertaining
Charles W. Long | Mission, TX United States | 07/12/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I agree with othere that this version is unconventional, but also hasten to point out that the performers are really great. I do believe that Mozart would have been pleased, even if a bit dismayed by the razor-wire and submachine guns. It is really nice to see talented young performers do Mozart well and having fun doing it. I have a conventional version and clearly and strongly prefer this one."
Not for me
Ann Athema | 05/29/2003
(3 out of 5 stars)
"Often a good director can add some amusing or clever touches that actually make the opera more fun to watch. Such additions usually require a light touch and when done well are enjoyable. The modern dress and other anachronisms such as cigarette lighters and lighting up before an aria, a bullhorn, pepper spray, etc. were not amusing or clever. The pepper spray was particularly annoying, I thought. On the other hand, I'm probably just an old fuddy-duddy, and perhaps you will like this production. I didn't."