Yanked from the Harem Review – Pocket Opera’s interpretation of Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio

March certainly came in like a lamb this year.  Sunday March 4, 2012 was all sunshine with temperatures in the mid-70’s. We arrived at the Marines Memorial Theatre at a comfortable 1:55 for a scheduled 2:00 curtain.

Director Nicholas Aliaga

As I sat down in seat G2 five minutes before curtain time, I noticed something different about the stage: there was no piano!  I found out later that there had been a bit of miscommunication between the theatre and the opera company that was only discovered at 12:30.  Nobody panicked.  There were innumerable phone calls (in the pre-cell phone days, panic would have been called for), two or three trips back and forth between the theatre and Donald Pippin’s house and Director Nicholas Aliaga came striding on stage carrying Donald’s electronic keyboard and stand.

Not more than 10 minutes late, the show started.  And it was a wonderful show, led off as usual by Mozart’s delightful overture and Donald Pippin’s droll and witty introduction.  As with almost all Pocket Opera productions, it was sung in English using Pippin’s own interpretation of the original German text.

Mozart wrote the opera in 1782 as a Singspiel (literally, Sing Play) with numerous arias, duets, trios, etc. interspersed with spoken dialog.  The original location was “somewhere along the Mediterranean coast” sometime during the 18th century. Pippin has chosen to update it by a couple of centuries but to explain any possible anomalies by placing it in a small back-water kingdom which time has passed by.  Thus, the Pasha, Selim, was once a student at Columbia University in New York, but his views on the role of women (the only views that count in his autocratic realm), are decidedly 18th century.

Constanza (Suzanne Mizel)

Four of the characters in the opera are American: Constanza (Suzanne Mizel), her maid Blondie (Elise Kennedy), Blondie’s fianc… Pedrillo (Michael Desnoyers), and Belmonte (Jonathan Smucker) who is engaged to Constanza.  Before the opera begins the first three were on a cruise ship in the Mediterranean, but were captured by pirates and sold to Selim (John Nichols) (a non-singing role).  Selim is smitten by Constanza and wants to keep her indefinitely, with amorous intent.  Since the three came as a package, he “gives” Blondie to his surly Chief of Police, Osmin (William Neil), and consigns Pedrillo to the role of servant.

As the opera opens, Belmonte comes anxiously down the aisle from the back of the theatre, inquiring of various audience members:*

Excuse me ma’am.  I’m looking for someone.
Can you help me” . . . Oh, sir!
Have you seen my girl friend?  Here’s her picture.
She’s with two friends . . . American.  Please!

He hops up on stage, starts his first aria, and encounters the surly Osmin who enters singing his first aria,

When you find a willing sweetheart
You must keep her under thumb,      .  .  .

Belmonte attempts to interrupt at the end of each verse, asking for information, but neither one hears a word that the other is singing/saying – a device used frequently in the following scenes.

This is the second time in a month that I have watched Jonathan Smucker (the first was as Ottavio in West Bay Opera’s Don Giovanni).  He not only gave a further example of his fine tenor voice, but this role gave him more scope to show that he is also a good actor.

Belmonte (Jonathan Smucker) disguised as a woman; photo by Yen Nguyen

Eventually Belmonte disguises himself as a woman, sneaks into “the harem”, and meets up with the other Americans.  The plot proceeds along three threads to its climax.  Belmonte has a plan to escape at midnight that night; Selim presses his suit to wed Constanza (or at least to bed her); Osmin has similar notions with regard to Blondie.

Constanza is thoroughly, completely, blindly, in love with Belmonte – the kind of love found only in operas.  She states this fact over and over to Selim, not even hearing the details that he may propose, and seemingly totally unaware of the relative power of the two of them.

Blondie (Elise Kennedy)

Blondie, on the other hand is an ardent feminist and has a keen awareness of the realities of life. She’s in love with Pedrillo, but that wouldn’t stop her from considering other offers.  For example, Constanza has just come from a session with Selim and tells Blondie:

He is finally convinced that I am not going to marry him [so] he has made me another offer.  We can go free.  You and Pedrillo, too . . . if . . . . (she whispers in Blondie’s ear)

Just once?
He would let all of us go free.  .  .  .  .  .
Of course, it’s only for one night and I’m sure that Belmonte would understand and forgive you
But why would he even have to know about it?
You can certainly count on me to keep a secret.
No, no, no!  It’s entirely up to you to decide.

As Blondie is singing the above words, she makes it very clear to the audience that if she were made such an offer she would jump at it.  This is the second time I’ve seen Elise Kennedy with Pocket Opera (the first was last year in The Cat Transformed into a Woman), and I sure hope it won’t be the last.  It is sheer delight to watch what she can do in a comic role.  I won’t even try to describe the wonderful scene in which she totally dominates Osmin when he seriously tells her that since Selim has “given” her to him, she is his slave and must submit to him.

Blondie exits leaving Constanza alone to inform Selim in no uncertain terms that she will kill herself rather than submit to him.  She does this first speaking:

You can wait till doomsday! .  .  .
I can never, never accept your offer.

then in a lovely aria:

Threaten me with torture unrelenting,
Summon fire and thunder.
Not by terror nor compulsion
Can you reach and touch my heart.  .  .  .  .

In death at last shall I be free,
I shall be free,
I shall be free in death.

In the printed libretto the word immediately following is (exit), but at the performance there are several minutes of delightful Mozart music in between.  Donald Pippin described it to me later as, “A director’s nightmare; the two characters are on stage for five minutes without making a sound and nothing to do but glare at each other.” Well, Director Nicholas Aliaga found a perfect nightmare remedy.  As she finishes her aria Constanza glares briefly at Selim then turns away as if thinking what to say next.  Selim turns away and ponders.  After a bit the music has a pregnant pause as if someone is about to begin singing, Selim looks over his shoulder but turns back immediately when he sees Constanza starting to turn towards him.  He straightens his shoulders, takes a breath, and opens his mouth as if to say or sing something.  He holds that pause for an instant, then shrugs his shoulders and shuts his mouth conveying “No, that’s not worth saying,” without a sound.  The music continues on and the two actors move about the stage studiously avoiding looking at each other.

A moment later the scenario is repeated, but this time Constanza makes the first move.  These alternating false starts continue until the musical interlude has run its course, Constanza gives a final shrug and exits, and Selim exits with the ominous words

I will gain nothing by demanding or by begging.
What does that leave but taking.

Pedrillo (Michael Desnoyers)

Enter the three conspirators with a plan for escape that very night.  A key ingredient of the plan is that Pedrillo will slip a Mickey Finn into a bottle of Coca-Cola and persuade Osmin to drink it.  Blondie and Belmonte exit to carry out their assignments.  Pedrillo opens the two end bottles of a 6-pak he is carrying, pours some white powder in one of them, and puts them both back erect in the 6-pak.

Osmin (William Neil) savoring a Coca-Cola; photo by Yen Nguyen

Without great difficulty Osmin is persuaded to take one of the bottles while Pedrillo swigs from the other (let’s hope he didn’t get them mixed up!) to a duet that evoked frequent chuckles from us older audience members who recognized many of the words from ancient Coca-Cola ads:

.  .  .  At work or at leisure,
The drink for you.
So delicious .  .  .
And refreshing!
Ah! The classic formula .  .  .

Oh-oh!  My time is up.  If you want to find out how the escape plot turned out, you’ll have to come to one of the remaining two performances at 2 pm on a Sunday:

March 11 at Marines Memorial Theatre
March 18 at the Hillside Club

And while you’re checking your calendar, put down dates to attend some or all of the rest of Pocket Opera’s 35th season:

Count Ory (Rossini)
Teseo (Handel)
Norma (Bellini)
Tales of Hoffman (Offenbach)
April 15(M) April 22(M) April 29(H)
June 3(M) June 10(H)
June 24(M) July 1(M) July 8(H)
July 22(M) July 29(M) August 5(H)

All performances 2 pm on a Sunday
M = Marines Memorial Theatre
H = Hillside Club

*      All libretto quotes are from OPERA IN ENGLISH, Volume One: Mozart by Donald Pippin ¬©2007 by Donald Pippin’s Pocket Opera

Pocket Opera addresses

This review by Philip G Hodge appeared in sanfranciscosplash.com on March 8, 2012.

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