Upon hearing Mozart's "Die Entfuehrung aus dem Serail" ("The Abduction from the Seraglio") for the first time, Emperor Joseph II is reputed to have remarked to the composer: "Too many notes, my dear Mozart!"
The story may be apocryphal, but one came away from the Washington Opera's new production last Thursday with such an assessment.
Newly arrived in Vienna from provincial Salzburg, the 26-year-old composer was desperate to make his reputation with "Entfuehrung," and he pulled out all the stops. He exceeded by far the dimensions of any of his previous 11 stage works -- arias and ensembles extend long beyond anything he had written before. Certainly, there is no shortage of notes.
Yet "Entfuehrung" is the first dramatic work in which we hear Mozart's mature operatic voice. No one else could have found in so conventional a harem-rescue story such human and divine resonances. And only Mozart's fascination with, and genius for, depicting the workings of human psychology could have breathed such life into these characters, making even Osmin, who guards the Pasha's harem, more than merely a stock comic villain.
But a production needs several outstanding singers; a conductor capable of making an orchestra propel, rather than impede, the flow of the line; and an intelligent stage director who can help his singing actors transform this work into more than a stagey comic opera. When these factors are absent -- as they were on Thursday night -- "Entfuehrung" makes for a very long night indeed.
Mozart never wrote better music for the tenor voice than in the role of Belmonte. But John Osborn never rose to the challenge. His voice lacked the color, thrust and upward extension needed. And his lack of confidence and dash turned Belmonte into a passive, almost pathetic, character.
As Constanze, Mary Dunleavy was able to generate personal warmth, but she was overmatched by the role's demands for technical fluency. In coloratura passages she was able to hit most of the notes, but often in such a shrill and loud manner that one did not want to hear them.
Other singers made better impressions. As Blonde, Jane Giering-De Haan's singing was vocally assured, and her spirited portrayal, particularly during her harangue of Osmin concerning the delicate treatment accorded women in England, brought deserved cheers.
As her equally feisty Pedrillo, John Daniecki did not have a particularly rich voice, but his characterization was incisive and energetic. Thomas Stewart, the distinguished bass-baritone who retired from singing several years ago, delivered the speaking role of the Pasha Selim with as much dignity as he could muster under the circumstances.
Those circumstances suggested that director and stage designer Michael Hampe may have been asleep at the wheel in rehearsals. Stewart, like several of the singers, often seemed to be wandering around in a haze. This aimlessness also attached itself to Guenther Missenhardt's characterization of Osmin. But Missenhardt, the best thing about the production, was often able to rise above his circumstances through a bass voice of considerable size and flexibility, which he applied to the role with a full measure of comic malevolence.
Julia Jones conducted the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra in a perfectably respectable manner, but without the vitality, sense of momentum and the feeling for the shape of a Mozartian phrase necessary to make "Entfuehrung" more than a filled-to-overflowing sequence of notes.
What: Mozart's "Die Entfuehrung aus dem Serail"
Where: Eisenhower Theater of the Kennedy Center, off Virginia and New Hampshire avenues N.W., Washington
When: Thursday, Saturday, Jan. 11, 13, 16, 18, 21 and 24
Call: 800-87-OPERA Pub Date: 1/05/99