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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

PRIMER | A Guide To Getting Ready For Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio

By Matthew Timmermans on February 11, 2018

Preparing for the Performance: Recordings of Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio

After reading my guide to Verdi’s Rigoletto, a close friend of mine noted how nerdy the endeavour was. Given the positive feedback, it seems that whether you are a beginner or a lifelong listener of opera, you also enjoy my nerdy side. So, I have created another guide for the Canadian Opera Company’s upcoming production of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail or in English, The Abduction from the Seraglio, including some of my personal favourites.

I have organized the recordings using some new categories based on different types of listeners:

  • “The Beginner,” is someone who has never heard an opera before or seen Entführung.
  • “The Early Music Connoisseur” is a listener who wants to hear the opera as Mozart might have heard or imagined it.
  • “The Experienced Listener” is someone who knows the opera and finds enjoyment comparing different recordings with one other.
  • “The Historical Listener” is a listener interested in older interpretations of this opera by famous singers of past generations.
  • Finally, I’ve added in a personal favourite, as well as a video recording for those who care to take their auditory experience to the next level.

As I mentioned last time, if there are any recordings that you feel were missed, I would be more than happy to include suggestion posted in the comment section below. (And for those who don’t know the plot or simply need a refresher don’t hesitate to look here).

The Beginner

  • Year: 1978
  • Label: Philips
  • Konstanze: Christiane Eda-Pierre
  • Blonde: Norma Burrowes
  • Belmonte: Stuart Burrows
  • Pedrillo: Robert Tear
  • Osmin: Robert Lloyd
  • Conductor: Sir Colin Davis
  • Orchestra: Academy of St Martin in the Fields

When I began listening to Mozart, Colin Davis’ interpretations were always my first pick. Not only do his records showcase some of the best singers in these roles, but he also brings out fine details in the orchestra while at the same time letting the voices shine. Despite approaching the score with a full orchestra rather than one with period instruments, Davis still manages to let the music stay light and breathe.

In addition to Davis, this recording is great for beginners because the German dialogue is severally reduced leaving only the essentials.

Regrettably not often recorded, Christiane Eda-Pierre brings a tragic approach to Konstanze. In one aria you can hear her voice lilting as she sings her coloratura to depict sobbing, and in the next, she releases her full voice in triumph. Stuart Burrows gives Belmonte psychological depth by carefully crafting each line to create an emotional journey throughout each aria. Although both Eda-Pierre and Burrows can sound tense in their upper register this in no way takes away from their gorgeous voices which any first timer would appreciate.

Norma Burrowes makes an energetic yet elegant Blonde, but her interpretation does not have the same musical depth as others on the disc. As Osmin, Robert Llyod’s questionable vowels and gruff sound bring hilarity to the role. However, this comedic interpretation by no means detracts from some very fine singing that shows off the richness of his instrument.

Here is the overture conducted by Colin Davis earlier in his career. One should pay attention to the orchestral beauty and contrast he brings to Mozart’s music.

The Early Music Connoisseur

  • Year: 1991
  • Label: Archiv
  • Konstanze: Luba Orgonášová
  • Blonde: Cyndia Sieden
  • Belmonte: Stanford Olsen
  • Pedrillo: Uwe Peper
  • Osmin: Cornelius Hauptmann
  • Conductor: John Eliot Gardiner
  • Orchestra and Chorus: English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir

Famous for his Baroque interpretations of classical behemoths like Mozart, John Eliot Gardiner creates another fascinating interpretation of what this piece might have sounded like in the late 1700s.  Immediately apparent is his use of period instruments. One should pay attention to the lighter sound these create, and how Gardiner expertly adapts to the merits and limitations of these antiquated instruments. For example, the wind instruments cannot create a dramatic sustained crescendo as easily as newer instruments, so Gardiner brings more dramatic contrasts through faster tempos than we are used to and quickly changing dynamics. The only drawback is that the orchestra can sound somewhat similar throughout the recording and Gardiner’s strict tempos become somewhat militant.

One of the main attractions to this recording is the rarely recorded Luba Orgonášová. This Slovakian soprano reminds me of what Joan Sutherland might have sounded like if she performed the entirety of Konstanze’s music. She brings a large beautiful sound to the coloratura and long sensitive phrasing, however, at times her interpretation lacks feeling and clear diction.

There are a few weaknesses in this recording, though. Although he possesses a lighter voice than usually heard, which I’m sure Gardiner intended, I find Stanford Olsen’s portrayal of Belmonte lacks intelligence. One might notice that his coloratura is just sung without really emoting, and overall it’s not the most interesting or distinguished singing.

Another disappointment on this recording is Cornelius Hauptmann’s Osmin. From the beginning, his voice is divided in two: a very light top and meatier bottom that doesn’t extend to the lowest reaches of the role. Moreover, his Baroque straight tone is rather unappealing and sounds pushed. Hauptmann opts for a less crude interpretation than heard on other recordings making his performance rather boring. Cyndia Sieden sings Blonde aptly, but is not the most charismatic or impressive on record.

In this clip, you can get a glimpse of Orgonášová’s beautiful voice as Konstanze. This aria, “Ach ich liebte” occurs when she first appears and recalls love for Belmonte.

The Experienced Listener

  • Year: 2015
  • Label: Harmonia Mundi
  • Konstanze: Robin Johannsen
  • Blonde: Mari Eriksmoen
  • Belmonte: Maxmilian Schmitt
  • Pedrillo: Julian Prégardien
  • Osmin: Dimitry Ivashchenko
  • Conductor: René Jacobs
  • Orchestra and Chorus: Akademie für Alte Musik

Although this recording would also make a great first listen because of its verve and polished execution, it is even more enjoyable if the listener has something to compare it with. Famously taking up the banner of historically informed Mozartian performance practice, René Jacobs brings Mozart closer than ever to his Baroque roots with an orchestra of period instruments. One might only notice the difference after listening to an interpretation like that of Colin Davis. Personally, I find playing Mozart’s music with faster more consistent tempi, sudden contrasts, and lots of ornamentations lets the music breathe more than heavier romantic interpretations. Also, it is exciting to hear how Jacobs is not afraid the let the period instruments sound jarring or ugly for dramatic effect.

What makes this recording so intriguing for me, and controversial for others, is the choice to update the German dialogue and have it “musicalized” (Jacobs’ term) using fortepiano continuo. These added accompaniments are either improvised or based on other compositions by Mozart. Musically speaking, they embellish the dialogue and bring these textual sections closer to melodrama, which Mozart was already exploring in earlier operas. One can hear how this helps bring more contrast to the serious and comic sections of the opera making it infinitely more dynamic and coherent when the musical sections begin. After listening to this recording, I am convinced that this is closer to what Mozart might have had in mind when performing the score.

The singers miss no opportunity to follow Jacobs’ example, adding tasteful, and in the case of Mari Eriksmoen’s feisty Blonde, significant ornamentation. Each of the singers put their unique stamp on this music daring to make it even more challenging. Maxmilian Schmitt added a significant amount of ornamentation that at times pushes the limits of his light voice and his ability to clearly articulate his coloratura, but he never sacrifices his musicality as a result.

Although “Marten alle Arten” pushes the limits of her light voice, Robin Johannsen as Konstanze is musically riveting. It is a treat to listen to how she musicalizes her German diction to imbue each vowel with careful colouring. Similarly, Dimitry Ivashchenko gives a thoroughly gruff portrayal of Osmin’s comical yet devious character that is vocally resplendent from top to bottom.

What I found striking about this recording was that none of the voices were extremely distinctive. Rather than detracting from this performance, it made it even more impressive. The voices were no longer a distraction, one could focus on how each of the performers superbly portrayed their characters with artful singing.

This is Blonde’s “Durch zärtlichkeit” where she rebuffs her new master Osmin. You can hear how Eriksmoen ornaments each repeat and the addition of a fortepiano with an orchestra of period instruments.

The Historical Listener

  • Year: 1956
  • Label: Columbia
  • Konstanze: Lois Marshall
  • Blonde: Ilse Hollweg
  • Belmonte: Léopold Simoneau
  • Pedrillo: Gerhard Unger
  • Osmin: Gottlob Frick
  • Conductor: Sir Thomas Beecham
  • Orchestra and Chorus: Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Beecham Choral Society

In contrast to the modern interpretations that play Mozart’s music using Baroque styles, here one can listen to how Mozart was performed like the popular romantic operatic repertoire. This means that repeats are not ornamented, rather they are sung the same way a second time for emphasis, tempos are slower, and the larger orchestra gives the music a thicker more laboured sound.

Although I prefer a lighter interpretation of Mozart, as seen in the Gardiner of Jacobs recordings, this recording offers an interesting glimpse at how Mozart was understood in the mid 20th-century, and boasts some fantastic singing.

Canadian soprano Lois Marshall performs Konstanze with a simplicity and honesty that epitomized how performers sang Mozart at this time. Like the other singers on this recording, she subtly crafts the music in such a way that it comes to life without overshadowing it with her own showmanship.  Similarly, one can notice how Léopold Simoneau opts for a more poetic interpretation letting his light and beautiful top soar. However, his voice lacked presence in his lower register

Ilse Hollweg sings Blonde with an ease and purity that I have yet to hear again in this role. Gottlob Frick misses no opportunity to show off his ample bass voice, almost giving Osmin a regal sound in comparison to other recordings. Sir Thomas Beecham conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra sensitively, so much so that many of the dramatic moments such as Konstanze’s rage aria “Marten alle Arten” lose their immediacy. One might think that Beecham was trying to play down many of the opera’s Oriental and crude sounding elements by glossing over them with a beautiful orchestral sheen.

If you want a recording that is not overdone and lets Mozart’s music simply reveal itself, this recording a great choice. Most of the dialogue is cut leaving little to no interruption between numbers.

Here, the first of Belmonte’s many arias of love to Konstanze is stunningly sung by Léopold Simoneau. In the orchestra pay attention to how Mozart composes Belmonte’s fluttering heartbeat and in the vocal line his shortness of breath.

A Personal Favourite

  • Year: 1989
  • Label: Decca
  • Konstanze: Yvonne Kenny
  • Blonde: Lillian Watson
  • Belmonte: Peter Schreier
  • Pedrillo: Wilfred Gahmlich
  • Osmin: Matti Salminen
  • Conductor: Nikolaus Harnoncourt
  • Orchestra and Chorus:, Mozartorchester des Opernhauses Zürich and the Chor des Opernhauses Zürich

Although this recording has many commendable aspects, including period instruments, great singers, and a thorough vision, I would not claim that it is the most historically accurate recording. I think Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s approach is fairly modern, but also brings out the best out of his historical resources. If one wants to hear what the opera might have sounded like during the period, I would direct that listener to the Gardiner recording.

One of the questionable casting choices is the Wagnerian bass, Matti Salminen, as Osmin. However,  Salminen gives one of the most reckless and exciting performances I’ve ever heard. One can hear how he finds every opportunity to exploit Mozart’s music and show Osmin’s brutality with his gorgeously rich voice.

In the role of Belmonte, Peter Schreier has been recorded twice, and for good reason. He is simply the most musically convincing tenor in this role. I would not call his interpretation historically accurate because he sings the music rather romantically with slow tempi, but it’s his sense of pure line and drama that makes his performance so moving.

For me the crowning jewel on this recording in Yvonne Kenny as Konstanze. She finds the perfect balance between using straight tone to emote and vibrato to portray her anguish, it’s simply remarkable. I also must commend her ability to make the music sound so technically easy and at the same time so emotionally difficult.

As Blonde, Lillian Waston gives the spunkiest performance I have ever heard on disc. She emotes beautifully using clear German diction, and then spits with fire when insulting Osmin making you think she is actually about to get in a brawl with him. Although not enough to take away from the rest of the performance, the only drawback on this recording is Wilfred Gahmlich as Pedrillo.

As can be seen in most of his interpretations, Harnoncourt takes a different approach to the music. He dares to accent some unidiomatic off-beats and precariously slows down the tempi at times, but on this recording, it works. The music shines underneath his baton. As I mentioned at the beginning, it is not what I would consider historically accurate; rather it is performing this opera using historical resources with a modern understanding. This is something that I think only Harnoncourt could do.

Here, Kenny effortlessly sings Konstanze’s challenging rage aria in Act II, at which point she rebukes the advances of Pasha Selim for the second time.

A Video Recording

  • Year: 1980
  • Label: Deutsche Grammophon
  • Konstanze: Edita Gruberova
  • Blonde: Reri Grist
  • Belmonte: Francisco Araiza
  • Pedrillo: Norbert Orth
  • Osmin: Martti Talvela
  • Conductor: Karl Böhm
  • Orchestra and Chorus: Vienna Staatsoper

Arguably the most famous video recording of Entführung, this production preserves a phenomenal cast of singers.

Heading this cast is Edita Gruberova, who was famous for this role because of her technical proficiency and amazing vocal pyrotechnics, spinning out several pianissimi in this performance. In her other recordings of this role I find her interpretation more gentle and nuanced, whereas in this video she sings the role very powerfully. Although she manages to sing through the role almost flawlessly, which is no small feat live, one does feel that she would have come across as more of a prisoner if she performed the role more delicately.

As Belmonte, Francisco Araiza gives a powerful performance. He scales back his sizable voice to deliver Mozart’s music beautifully, but the coloratura and style is slower and more laboured then we are used to today. His acting is straightforward and effective, he also looks a handsome figure on stage.

Martti Talvela is not only a physically imposing Osmin, but also vocally impressive as well. His low range is rich and resonant, however, in his upper range, he sometimes resorts to speak-singing and shouting more than one would like. His counterpart, Reri Grist, makes a visually stunning Blonde with a very pure sound. Although she is charming on stage, her rather obvious interpretation and omitted high E’s leave something musically to be desired.

For a mostly traditional production, the staging by August Everding is very intuitive. The production evokes the American hostage crisis in Iran by dressing Selim in black costume redolent of the Ayatollah Khomenei. However, the contemporality does not extend beyond the Pasha; one will notice that the other characters are outfitted as they normally would be in a fetishized Ottoman Empire. The sets of the palace roll on and off for easy scene changes while being awe-inspiring to look at.

The choreography is also very tasteful and easy to understand giving motivation to these characters during their long arias. Karl Böhm coaxes out stunning textures from the orchestra while faithfully delivering his heavy romantic interpretation of Mozart. Although this cast of singers aptly maneuvers his tempos to bring beauty to this music, I personally wish I could have heard them in a lighter interpretation that let the music breathe a little more, rather than sounding almost Straussian.

This video is of the quartet at the end of Act II where the opera seria lovers, Belmonte and Konstanze, finally see one another again and plot their escape with the other opera buffa lovers, Pedrillo and Blonde.


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