Finding a Way to Escape: Die Entführung aus dem Serail at the Komische Oper, Berlin

Mozart – Die Entführung aus dem Serail.

Konstanze – Nicole Chevalier
Blonde – Nora Friedrichs
Belmonte – Adrian Strooper
Pedrillo – Johannes Dunz
Osmin – Jens Larsen
Bassa Selim – Guntbert Warns

Vocalconsort Berlin, Chorsolisten der Komischen Oper Berlin, Orchester der Komischen Oper Berlin / Ivo Hentschel.
Stage director – Calixto Bieito.

Komische Oper, Berlin, Germany.  Friday, April 13th, 2018.

Premiered in 2004, Calixto Bieito’s production of Die Entführung aus dem Serail caused quite the scandal on its first appearance.  It may well be that some audience members were shocked by the frequent nudity, occasional violence and sexual content of this updating of Mozart’s singspiel.  It’s a staging that I have wanted to see for a long time but had never been able to get to.  Now, in its final revival, I was pleased to finally be able to get acquainted with it.

There was no hint of scandal in the house tonight.  Indeed, the evening was greeted with a generous ovation by the public.  It still has its power to shock – the sight of Bassa Selim inserting his hand into Konstanze’s panties was greeted with an audible gasp from the lady behind me.  And yet, as so often with Bieito, the cumulative whole has genuine insight and impact.

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

He asks a lot of his singing actors.  The staging is physically demanding.  Nicole Chevalier’s Konstanze, for example, has to sing one of the most challenging arias in the repertoire while being restrained by Selim.  Similarly, there’s a lot of falling to the floor and Jens Larsen’s Osmin sings his opening scene completely naked.  The setting is not so much a seraglio as a modern day brothel, a place of hedonism, with the various services offered by the ‘heisse Girls’ listed on a display at the back.  Entführung is often approached as a picturesque work with little interest for the cultural stereotypes contained within.  In Bieito’s staging the clash of cultures is underexplored – one could certainly perhaps wonder how he might have approached that – instead, he offers us almost a frothy opening, a disco ball bathing the auditorium in its light, a trapeze artist delighting the audience with her acrobatics.  As the evening progresses, he gradually takes us into an infinitely darker part of the human soul.  Behind the façade of this place of physical pleasures is something much darker.  We are taken on Konstanze’s journey as she refuses to submit to Selim but instead holds out hope that Belmonte will rescue her.

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

More than anything, and in common with his Oslo Tosca, Bieito makes this her story.  The journey of a woman as she survives unspeakable trauma and her search for something, anything, that will help her find resolution.  Yet Konstanze is only one of the women on stage.  The others, apart from Blonde, don’t speak – we have no idea who they are, where they came from or whether they are there willingly or by force.  In doing so, Bieito tells the stories of those whose stories are almost never told.  That is where the power of this staging lies.  Yes, it’s gruesome.  In ‘Martern aller Arten’ we see a woman being disfigured in the most graphic way.  It’s presented to us almost in a dispassionate way.  This is however a reality for women working in the sex trade daily and Bieito never allows us to forget that.  He makes us reflect on our world and provokes us to feel and to think for those who suffer.

As with the recent Stuttgart Parsifal, tonight would not have had the impact it had, had it not been for some truly exceptional performances in the cast.  The ladies in particular were absolutely sensational.  Indeed, the quality of performance that the Komische offered tonight for this revival was better than many other theatres offer for their premieres.  The entire cast threw themselves into everything asked from them, whether that involved nudity, being whipped or throwing themselves to the floor.  Their dedication to the success of the evening was nothing short of remarkable.

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

Nicole Chevalier was a fabulous Konstanze.  The voice is a good size and endowed with a creamy core and a silky exterior.  The tessitura held no terrors as she dispatched one of the most challenging arias in the repertoire with the utmost ease.  The registers are absolutely integrated from velvety bottom to shining top.  Her ‘Martern aller Arten’ was full of virtuosic abandon but it was in the solitary beauty of ‘Traurigkeit’ that she managed to find the core of the aria and sang with heartfelt longing.  A truly exceptional performance.  Nora Friedrichs gave us a scintillating Blonde.  The voice has the lightness of cotton candy with an attractive vibrato and an easy top.  She contrasted nicely with Chevalier’s fuller tones.

The gentlemen were very good if not quite on the same level as the ladies.  Adrian Strooper sang a mellifluous Belmonte in a silvery tenor with easy reach.  The more florid writing in ‘ich baue ganz’ was somewhat aspirated but the musicality of his singing certainly gave pleasure and his diction was impeccable – as indeed was the case for the entire cast, rendering the seat-back titles redundant.  Johannes Dunz also gave us muscular-voiced Pedrillo, again with easy lyricism, although the voice was pushed unnecessarily in ‘Frisch zum Kampfe’ with the tone losing quality.  That said, it was all of a piece with his acting of the hyper-masculine incarnation.  Jens Larsen’s Osmin certainly had almost all the notes with a full and resonant bottom and he played the viciously sadistic incarnation of the character here most convincingly.  Guntbert Warms had stage presence to spare as Selim.

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

The orchestra played extremely well for Ivo Hentschel.  Strings with minimal vibrato and sharp attack really helped create a beguiling sound world.  Tempi were, for the most part, well chosen – nicely swift with the evening speeding towards its inevitable conclusion.  Ornamentation was present in a few appoggiature and the occasional embellishment, but I would certainly have welcomed more of it.  As most of the house forces are touring to Japan currently, the chorus was supplemented by members of the Vocalconsort Berlin and they dispatched their music with tight ensemble.

This was unlike any Entführung I have seen before – and am likely to see again.  It’s regrettable that the house will be retiring it after this run as it’s a great staging – a dark and fascinating exploration of the lives of those women whose stories aren’t often told and the men who cause their suffering.  Above all Bieito doesn’t make Konstanze a victim and the cumulative impact of the whole is that (without wanting to give spoilers) she ultimately still has control of her own destiny.  Bieito presents to us the murkiest side of our society and yet, rather than distracting from Mozart’s music, it works with it to create an evening of almost unbearable power and impact.  It was superbly served by the cast and by the house forces.  Their dedication to all that was asked of them was inspirational.  There are only three performances left.  Open-minded lovers of great music theatre need to see it before it’s too late.

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The Komische Oper Berlin. Photo: © Gunnar Geller

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