The Abduction From The Seraglio: Program Notes from Director Robert B. Driver
It has been 13 years since I last staged The Abduction from the Seraglio in Philadelphia in a traditional, period production at the Academy of Music. My first experience with the opera was as an Assistant Director with the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich in the 1960s, which was also an elegant, traditional production in the lovely Rococo Cuvillies-Theater.
In thinking about Abduction in a new millennium, I wanted to bring a fresh new look to Mozart’s comic masterpiece which, in effect, launched the German comic opera in Vienna in the 1780s. My challenge was to be able to tell the story written by librettists Christoph Friedrich Bretzner and Gottlieb Stephanie and to honor Mozart’s music in a manner that would be more appealing and familiar to today’s audience. In late 18th-Century Vienna, “rescue” operas, in which young maidens were captured by marauding pirates and sold into slavery in exotic lands such as Turkey, were all the rage – but the comedic resonance in this plot today lies less in the broad strokes, and more in the timeless foibles of human nature that play out on stage.
Mozart’s music and the accompanying libretto depict Turkey with such alluring color that the challenge was in finding a fresh time and place in which one could use that backdrop for the capture, imprisonment, and eventual rescue and release of the heroine Konstanze and her subordinates Blonde and Pedrillo.
To dramatize the setting, I looked to periods of war and settled on the end of the First World War. Through my research, I had read about Ataturk, who led the Turkish people in the First World War and was subsequently instrumental in the establishment of the Turkish state. He was a leader who was fascinated by Western culture, and thus the perfect model for Bassa Selim. And what better way for him to come in contact with Konstanze than through her duties as a spy for the Allied Forces?
Our story begins during the overture when Ataturk, aka Bassa Selim, is having a “tete-a-tete” with the beautiful Konstanze in a Turkish nightclub when Selim’s orderly, Osmin, comes in to whisper in his ear that the woman he is wooing is an Allied spy. The clever Konstanze sees that something is amiss and leaves suddenly to return to her camp where her orderlies, Pedrillo and Blonde, are supposed to be working. Selim orders the capture of the spy Konstanze – with whom he is now completely enamored. Osmin arrives to apprehend the spy and her associates, but Pedrillo is able to send an SOS signal to Belmonte, a Spanish pilot and Konstanze’s lover. Thus the scene is set to tell the story in an early 20th-Century setting.
Speaking with my team of creative colleagues – costume and scenic designer Guia Buzzi; projection effects designer Lorenzo Curone; and lighting designer Drew Billiau – we decided to draw on the world of early Hollywood cinema in order to tell our romantic, swashbuckling, rescue story. We focused on creating the right ambiance with film; whether finding the perfect spy-tinged nightclub scene to frame the action in the overture, setting the stage for the military encampment where Blonde and Pedrillo are working as aids, or following Belmonte’s bi-plane as it flies to Konstanze’s rescue, we used film to enhance our storytelling, and sometimes for comic effect.
Because so much of Abduction’s comedy lies in its characterizations, I shared my thoughts with the artists about each of these unique personas within this 1920s setting:
Belmonte: A romantic Spanish aristocrat, charmingly naive about the real world. A Hollywood matinee idol.
Konstanze: An elegant, daring, self-assured, and liberated 20th-Century woman with an inner warmth and a passion for Latin men, as well as a fascination for accomplished, mature men.
Blonde: A down-to-earth, liberated 20th-Century middle class woman who “takes no prisoners.”
Pedrillo: Your average good guy who is madly in love with Blonde, and who always tries to make the best of any situation.
Osmin: A loyal “dog” to his master, whose bark is worse than his bite. Not the sharpest pencil in the box.
Bassa Selim (Ataturk): A wise man of strong character. A Muslim who is both fascinated and puzzled by the liberated Western woman.
These attributes carry our characters throughout the opera in both their spoken words and in their reactions to Mozart’s music. For example, in the dialogue and introduction leading up to Konstanze’s famed aria “Martern aller Arten,” it is Konstanze who remains in control of the situation despite all threats. Blonde also demonstrates that she is completely in control in her second act aria and duet with Osmin. She can be sweet and pliable when she chooses to be, but do not cross her! (Perhaps these characterizations provide the ladies with revenge for their treatment in Così fan tutte… twelve years in advance!)
It is certainly no coincidence that Mozart chose the name of Konstanze for his heroine, as it was during this period that he was battling with his father via correspondence for approval of his marriage to Konstanze Weber.
In his correspondence to his father, Mozart speaks of needing to save her as soon as possible – perhaps the motivation for this “rescue” opera.
My artistic colleagues Maestro Corrado Rovaris, Gabriele Gandini Director of the Teatro Comunale di Treviso where this coproduction was premiered, and I set out to audition the finest cast both vocally and visually to help us realize the story in the most credible fashion possible. Our singers and creative team represent an international assemblage of artists from Italy, Holland, Switzerland, Spain, Poland, and the United States. We hope that you thoroughly enjoy this production which we have prepared for you with the combined forces of the Opera Company of Philadelphia and the Fondazione Cassamarca of Treviso.
— Robert B. Driver
Stage Director and Artistic Director of the Opera Company of Philadelphia