BSO takes on challenging Mozart opera ‘Seraglio’

In his BSO debut, Johannes Debus leads “The Abduction From the Seraglio.’’ In his BSO debut, Johannes Debus leads “The Abduction From the Seraglio.’’ (Hilary Scott)
By David Weininger
Globe Correspondent / July 26, 2010

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LENOX — “The Abduction From the Seraglio’’ was the first of the five great operas Mozart wrote after he came to Vienna in 1781. It may also be the most difficult to present in a concert performance, as the Boston Symphony Orchestra did on Friday night.

The Viennese public was smitten with all things Turkish; “Seraglio’’ is set at the harem of Pasha Selim, who has kidnapped three Westerners: Konstanze, her maid Blonde, and Pedrillo, the servant of Konstanze’s fiance Belmonte. Belmonte comes to the harem to rescue the three, at which point the hijinks ensue.

Deep questions of national identity and cultural and religious tolerance are hinted at in “Seraglio,’’ but these mostly go by the boards in favor of slapstick comedy in the English-language narration that the BSO used to replace the lengthy passages of dialogue and the speaking role of Pasha Selim. The narration is the creation of the British singer and writer Simon Butteriss. (The arias and ensembles were sung in the original German, with Butteriss’s translations projected as supertitles.) Its wordplay and puns are occasionally clever but grow tiresome as the opera’s three acts unfold. (“Tiresome Turkish testosterone’’ is the description of Selim’s servant Osmin.) Only at the end, when Selim prepares to execute Belmonte, then grants him mercy, does the narration reach for a broader relevance, but it simply comes off as trite. Actor Will LeBow nevertheless did an honorable job narrating this rather clumsy creation.

Musically, things were more successful, starting with soprano Lisette Oropesa as Konstanze. Mozart put some of his most taxing vocal writing in “Seraglio,’’ including two arias for Konstanze — the mournful “Traurigkeit ward mir zum Lose’’ and the defiant “Martern aller Arten’’ — one after the other in Act II. Oropesa handled both with blistering power and assurance, as well as a range of vocal colors and emotional shadings. She is one to watch.

The other standout was bass Morris Robinson as the oafish Osmin. His deep, uncommonly resonant voice could be heard even at the subterranean depths Mozart calls for. Tenor Eric Cutler was a light and plaintive Belmonte, and his Act II duet with Oropesa, “Welch ein Geschick,’’ was one of the evening’s highlights. Tenor Anthony Stevenson was a pleasing if somewhat one-dimensional Pedrillo. Soprano Ashley Emerson had an attractive, agile voice, though her portrayal of Blonde was marred by a few rough patches high in her range and an occasional failure to project.

Conductor Johannes Debus — stepping in for James Levine in his BSO debut — led a well-ordered performance that dragged in a few spots. The orchestra’s wind playing was superb. A chorus drawn from the Tanglewood Music Center Vocal Fellows sounded fine in two brief choruses.

David Weininger can be reached at

BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA Johannes Debus, conductor

At: Tanglewood, Friday