OPERA NEWS - Die Entführung aus dem Serail
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Mozart: Die Entführung aus dem Serail

CD Button Damrau, Prohaska; Villazón, Schweinester, Selig, Quasthoff; Vocalensemble Rastatt, Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Nézet-Séguin. Text and translation. Deutsche Grammophon DG 479 4064 (2)

Recordings Entfuhrung Cover 1215

THE CHARACTER OF CONSTANZE is almost too contradictory for the flimsy comic world of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail. Musically, her solos extend from the dirge-like despondency of “Traurigkeit” to the whirlwind bravura displays in her rapid arias; the assignment is like having the same soprano perform Pamina’s dark “Ach ich fühl’s” and the Queen of the Night’s aggressive coloratura. In terms of characterization, the spunky comic heroine who at the end of the opera gives her fiancé a smack in the face—is that the Constanze who welcomed death an hour before?

Or, to focus just on the heroine’s display pieces (“Ach ich liebte” and “Martern aller Arten”), how can such frenzied pyrotechnics make sense dramatically? It’s possible to take those cascading notes, especially in “Martern,” as a defense, something like the crack and snap of a lion tamer’s whip keeping Pasha Selim at bay, a grander version of Blonde’s intimidation of Osmin, or like Sheherezade playing for time. Recordings offer other emphases in “Martern aller Arten”—imperious (Moser), giddy-anxious (Auger) or even mechanical and dissociated, like a fugue state (Orgonášová). 

In this new recording led by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Diana Damrau wants none of the above. The soprano has announced her own view of Constanze—as a hostage who is afraid of falling for her jailer (a case of Stockholm syndrome, for short) and thus a wrenchingly conflicted character. That interpretation has interesting possibilities for a staged performance, and it’s compatible with Damrau’s strong delivery of “Traurigkeit.”

But the soprano and conductor seem to allow the Stockholm diagnosis to distort “Martern aller Arten.” Its pace slows, grows halting and labored; pleas and internal conflict, not defiance, become its keynote. The conductor restores the traditional cuts, and relies on emphatic accents rather than speed for dramatic impact. He takes one cue from the early-instruments recordings by Harnoncourt, Gardiner and others. At the aria’s second theme, marked ad lib. in the score, those conductors introduced the practice of slowing to half the prevailing tempo. But while they made a brief ritardando for contrast, Nézet-Séguin maintains that departure as his baseline tempo, until close to the end of the aria.

Unfortunately, Damrau’s vocal condition on this recording undermines her attempt to soften the music’s impact. With the exception of her masterful messa di voce on high C and then G near the end of “Martern aller Arten,” everything in the top range is delivered at an explosive forte. Aggressiveness, involuntarily, becomes her default mode. Elsewhere, such as in Constanze’s later music opposite Belmonte, more gloss and smorzando would be welcome.

In the role of Belmonte, despite an unlikely Mozart timbre, tenor Rolando Villazón offers a lesson in style: deft, legato delivery of fast passage work, impressive breath control and intelligent phrasing. Franz-Josef Selig negotiates the vast range of the comic bass role of Osmin with winning bluster. Anna Prohaska makes an ideally pert and sparkling Blonde; tenor Paul Schweinester, a funny, wimpy Pedrillo. Thomas Quasthoff brings unusual intensity to the Pasha Selim’s spoken lines.

When Constanze is not at center stage, the conductor emphasizes spark and contrast, from the vaudevillian effervescence of the male trio in Act I, to a savory Osmin–Blondchen duet and the well-differentiated stages of the extended quartet. For the most part, he maintains tension in the melodic line and—no doubt to offset the sluggish soprano solos—strong forward momentum, even bumping up the prescribed adagio of Belmonte’s “Wenn der Freude Thränen fliessen” almost to an allegretto. His style is informed by the historically informed school of Mozart performance; he adopts the period instrumentalists’ brio and, in the overture and march, traces of their jangly “Turkish” timbres. —David J. Baker 


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