I had a second look & listen to Wajdi Mouawad’s Abduction from the Seraglio, my second time coming in the closing performance of the run with the Canadian Opera Company at the Four Seasons Centre.
I wanted to reflect on what did & didn’t work for me, while aiming to be mindful of multiple objectives & points of view.
While this production added a prologue, additional dialogue & restored music that’s often cut, making for a long evening, it was still the most absorbing Entfuhrung/Abduction I’ve ever sat through, never letting down in intensity, never boring me. I’ve yawned in every other production, a work that sometimes seems overlong in the way the musical numbers go on and on (or in the immortal critique we hear in Amadeus: “too many notes”). Do I sound like a Philistine? I don’t care. If we’re going to talk about hits & misses, first off in a production adding to an already long work, I’d be surprised if no one suggested that they consider judicious cuts to go with their creative additions.
And yet the result feels very Wagnerian in its intensity. I don’t know Mouawad’s work, don’t know about his possible acquaintance with the works or dramaturgy of Richard Wagner, only that I think it might be terribly interesting to see what he as an artist with Muslim roots might make of Parsifal for example.
The headline above (“Vanderdecken” being the character in the Heine original adapted by Wagner as The Flying Dutchman ) is an indication of how I read Pasha Selim last night in Mouawad’s version of Abduction. No it’s not a light comedy, but something very serious and perhaps therefore requiring such length. In the final tableau Selim gets inside the enclosure of the set—where the captives were held—with his Janissaries and is moved upstage. It’s almost like a ship sailing off. I couldn’t help thinking that this reminds me of the Flying Dutchman, who would come ashore at regular intervals seeking love and redemption. As the enclosure is shaped like a globe I took it to represent the world in some sense. If we think not simply in terms of the romantic plot (and the question of which man Konstanze chooses) but rather the larger inter-cultural encounter at the core of the story, Selim is in a sense still looking for the redemption that Mouawad himself might seek of a real enlightened meeting between cultures, unhindered by cliche or over-simplification.
I should probably not project the director’s notes so far as to conflate Mouawad & Selim, although I can’t help it. After reading his notes (that spoke of “caricature or casual racism.”) and seeing the show early in the run, I was reminded of Peter Hinton’s attempt to update & redeem aspects of Louis Riel through the framing device of an onstage group of silent witnesses, counter-balancing or weakening some of the poison in the text. Some critics found it heavy-handed. I won’t go on about this, only to suggest that what struck me as a wonderfully fertile pathway turned many other people off.
Perhaps I read too much into Pasha Selim being Mouawad, if we notice the casting of Raphael Weinstock, an actor born in Haifa. At the very least this is an intriguing & inclusive choice.
I asked about the appearance of the Janissaries yesterday on twitter. I tweeted:
“For today’s show I sat beside someone who was really disturbed / upset by the way the chorus looked, and said so aloud. Now that it’s over, do you mind me asking, what if anything did it mean?”
No I wasn’t disavowing by blaming my seatmate, (who found them scary). I just wondered what they were meant to signify.
I was told
“We represented how alien the east was in the minds of the western world. I wondered how shocking it was from the house. Not our favourite look! Tough to wear for over 4 hours.”
Thank you Alexandra Pomeroy @ladychyld for the reply.
I think that these zombie-like creations were mysterious and fearsome while dodging clichés, which is what one usually encounters (thinking for instance of movies such as the aptly named True Lies). I don’t blame Mouawad for talking out of two sides of his mouth, when staging an opera full of two-dimensional caricatures, thinking especially of Osmin, whose aria “O wie will ich triumphieren”, is a celebratory rant about the joys of torture. By directing it to a child (who might represent his own daughter inside Blonde that he’ll never see) he deconstructs much of the rage & violence. Again, this cryptic moment was intriguing and for me, very rich even if I might be decoding it all wrong. Similarly, while the Janissaries could represent the most fearsome side of Ottoman culture, Mouawad opted for something gentler & more ambiguous.
Three other things really worked for me
- The first big aria from Konstanze, sung not to Selim but framed by Belmonte in the meta-theatre set up at the beginning
- As I mentioned in my review, the aria “Marten aller Arten” that closes the first half, which was even more powerful for me, knowing it was coming.
- The celebratory aria from Blonde “welche Wonne welche Lust” just after the interval, includes dancing from the other women onstage resembling dervishes, making her celebration seem inter-cultural, and beautiful in so many ways.
Some things were a bit obscure, only reading retrospectively. That Osmin is playing with a mobile through the first scene, and then sings his aria “O wie will ich triumphieren” to a little child who seems to sweetly kiss him goodnight at the end as though he is her papa singing a bedtime story, reads a bit differently when we discover that Blonde is pregnant. At the very least Mouawad seeks to make Osmin a three-dimensional character rather than a nasty buffoon.
And I wish there had been more of the meta-theatre set up in the opening. I have an idea that they might want that costs no money whatsoever for the ending, namely to bring down the reflective curtain that was used to set up the flashback scene a bit earlier. We see this curtain come down just at the moment when the music ends, sealing off the flashback and the Ottoman world; why not bring it down 30 seconds or even a minute earlier? Let us hear that celebratory chorus snuffed by the curtain, sounding far off as though in the heads of the quartet onstage, remembering.
Oh well, like so many, I’m a vicarious backseat driver wishing to grab the steering wheel…
And for those who want more Mouawad?
His play Scorched is to be presented at the University of Toronto in March at the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse, March 7-10 and 14-17, two weeks of Wednesday to Saturday.
Due to some health issues and other complications, I did not have time to read anything about the production or even the program before I took my seat yesterday, as it happen, at s the same performance as the one you attended. I think the audience should be able to assume that the text has not been meaningfully changed and if not, it should be announced at each and every performance, just the way substitutions in the cast are announced. I know there is a lot of advance information disseminated but as a patron I’m not obligated to make a study of the show before I attend it. Now I don’t know what was original and what added. This is especially true when the text is projected during the performance as this was. I kept thinking how contemporary many of the attitudes were. Now I know why, but would also like to know what the original attitudes were.
Hi Robin, interesting question. I’m not sure, the standard practice with opera is very much a caveat emptor approach, both with the COC and elsewhere. In an opera with dialogue it tends to be looser than one with recitative, perhaps because the librettist typically gets less credit & honour than the composer. This production adds lots of meta-theatre, where one reality is within another (eg the aria in the first act, where Belmonte is present in the current reality as she flashes back to sing of Selim: which i found very poignant). The surtitles paraphrase, summarizing and include anachronisms. (once mentioning “singing the blues!” hardly likely in the 18th century)
As always, your comments are perceptive. I also got to hear this production twice, and I certainly agree it was an excellent and stimulating one. This opera is usually taken as a piece of comic froth – among the lesser of Mozart’s operas – but this production achieved a(n unexpected) level of gravitas in all aspects: the individual characters, the plot, and the music.
Terauds’ review in The Toronto Star argued that it was a failed attempt “… to bring 18th-century European sensibilities into the 21st century by balancing Europeans and Arabs as equitably as possible. In the process, [the director] turned a lighthearted romp about the power of love into a tedious lesson on women’s equality and the relative merits of all cultures.” I don’t agree with that – in my view, it implies that the opera should be treated as a museum piece (in which case, all we need is a recording or just the score and why bother staging it?). Even more important, I think it makes an erroneous assumption that “18th-century European sensibilities” were totally simple and straightforward. In trying to cement the opera into an alleged historical context, Terauds (ironically enough) makes it ahistorical. Performance traditions are powerful – and opera audiences still tend to be conservative and dislike productions that step outside these traditions – but at the end of the day a performance tradition is not the work itself. And, as the poet said, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?”
The parallel you draw to The Flying Dutchman story is interesting, although I don’t think I can totally buy it. As I read the ending, it was “simply” the Europeans leaving Selim’s world – although the usual perspective was reversed, so we saw the Pasha receding as the Europeans sailed away: leaving him in his world as they returned to theirs. This seemed to me to be entirely consistent with the framing, as we opened with the Europeans in their world, It also, to me, posed the interesting question of “if it’s a prison, then whose prison?” – although I think the “prison” metaphor may be too specific; I understood the globe as symbolizing a more general idea of “separate worlds” (and a prison is certainly one kind of separate world, as is a seraglio – although I must note that I have no personal experience of either!)
On a practical level, my advice for a revival of this production would be to really cut down the spoken dialogue. While I really liked the approach it was trying to express, I think it overstated the case – it was like the director was a little too much in earnest and ended up trying to hammer it home when we’d already got the point. I thought the whole business of Blonde bearing Osmin’s child and Belmonte being the son of the Pasha’s great but lost love didn’t really add much to the drama. Also, I’d consider doing the spoken dialogue in English – why not, when that dialogue is so important to the framing? But I would in any event condense it so there’s less time between the musical numbers.
Finally, I’m glad you mentioned the Louis Riel production. In both cases, I think the COC deserves credit for offering productions that really engaged with issues previously “hidden” in these works. As I said about Louis Riel, if nothing else it’s encouraging to see opera as a contested art form, where productions challenge and critique both our current views and our assumptions about how opera should be performed.
Thanks Ian. I should perhaps explain, in referencing the Dutchman, that’s my connection, not anything I thought was intended. Mouawad surely didn’t mean it. But I see the connection in the pattern of repeated failure for Pasha Selim, heart-broken across generations. I totally agree about dialogue in English, as an aid to comedy especially (as Opera Atelier did for their production 5 years ago). I will stay away from comment on other critiques, only that my aim always is to enjoy a show and see what was attempted, to get inside its ambitions. I just played through most of the score, unable to get it out of my head (which explains that weird tweet of Mozart’s head just now). Thanks for the thoughtful response!
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