The Abduction from the Seraglio

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, libretto by Christoph Friedrich Bretzner and Gottlieb Stephanie
Adaptation by Tim Hopkins and Nicholas Ridout; written by Nicholas Ridout; lyrics by Amanda Holden
Opera North Theatre Royal, Newcastle, and touring

Production photo

Two extremes in one production - from the beautiful to the utterly awful.

Let's start with the beautiful - we might not be able to eliminate the negative but we can certainly accentuate the positive. The singing and the orchestra under Rory Macdonald are both excellent. Joseph II may or may not have said that the opera has "too many notes" but they are there and, for the lead women, very demanding. Both Kate Valentine (Constanze) and Elena Xanthoudakis (Blonde) rise to the challenge, meet it head on, and win. As so often in Mozart (Despina in Così and Susanna in Marriage of Figaro spring to mind), we have two very different female characters, the "serious" and lovelorn Constanze and the more feisty and go-getting Blonde, and here they are well differentiated in terms of vocal quality and performance.

Allan Clayton's lyrical Belmonte also contrasts well with Nicholas Sharratt's Pedrillo, whilst Clive Bayley's Osmin is, in the first act at any rate, rather more menacing than usual, which suits his powerful and dominating voice. All three, like the women, meet the vocal challenges of their parts.

I was less convinced by Martyn Hyder's Pasha Selim, mainly I think because of Tim Hopkins' direction which had him frequently walking back and forth across the stage or simply standing. Perhaps the idea was to have him as a ubiquitous and threatening presence, but, if so, it didn't work for me.

And now that we have come to mention of the direction, we come also to the utterly awful. Tim Hopkin's direction is all over the place. He obviously has a strong basic concept - a kind of updating to reflect/counter modern attitudes (or at least George W Bush attitudes) to the Islamic world - but the execution of that concept is incoherent. In the first act Belmonte's disguise as an architect leads to the stage being scattered with small model buildings and model trucks, bulldozers and earthmovers, pulled back and forth across the stage (hello Kneehigh!), then, in the second, skyscrapers form the background, skyscrapers which, in the third, become an abstract backdrop.

OK, a bit obvious but acceptable (although presence of the model vehicles is a bit twee), but in the second act a whole third of the black-floored stage is left empty and unused except for a model of an oil rig. Overly symbolic for my taste.

The set is on two levels, the higher of which (also the largest part) is set within a picture frame or proscenium arch, complete with curtains which act as house tabs, which means the performers have to either go off stage to move from one level to another or - and this happens not infreqently - clamber down or up. Why?

We also have a new character, the Pasha's Mute, video relayed from the stage to the backdrop (difficult to see) and a fancy dress party in which the Turks dress in traditional Turkish costume but there is also a Batman figure, Wonder Woman and a giant panda. The humour which the director attempts to inject is somewhat heavy-handed - indeed, my companion described it as heavy-footed!

The movement involves some half-hearted gestures in the direction of Opera North's 2004 production of Orfeo ed Eurydice, directed by Emio Greco and Pieter Scholten, but, lacking the full-scale commitment to that movement language, merely looked a little silly.

This early pre-da Ponte opera is not terribly coherent anyway but Hopkins' concept compounds that incoherence. One feels that he gave so much attention to the concept that the performers were left to find their own way, as if they'd been told to stand (or stagger or lie down) and sing. And this is such a shame, for what was within them to give without the director's intervention - their singing - was wonderful, but I certainly felt they were fighting against the direction all the time.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan