Mozart - Die Entführung aus dem Serail

ONP Garnier, Monday October 27 2014

Conductor: Philippe Jordan. Production: Zabou Breitman. Sets: Jean-Marc Stehlé. Costumes: Arielle Chanty. Choreography: Sophie Tellier. Lighting: André Diot. Selim: Jürgen Maurer. Konstanze: Erin Morley. Blonde: Anna Prohaska. Belmonte: Bernard Richter. Pedrillo: Paul Schweinester. Osmin: Lars Woldt. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris.

Mozart
Believe it or not, I was actually in Istanbul, having lunch in the grounds of Topkapi Palace* (in Turkish, "Topkapı Sarayı" hence "Serail" in Mozart's title), when I got a text message from Paris: "Entführung is dismal! Opéra de Limoges style." As it happens (this will seem far-fetched, but truth is supposed to be stranger than fiction) the person opposite me during lunch was from Limoges, and took umbrage at the implied slur on her home town. She was with me at last night's performance of the Entführung in question, at the Palais Garnier (in Turkish, "Garnier Sarayı", naturally – unless some phonetically-schooled Turks write it “Gağniye”). Giving her verdict at the interval, she hadn't forgotten that message: "Tell him (a) up yours and (b) even in Limoges they'd never dare..." - meaning never dare put on such a dire show. Wondering what to write about it, I was lost for words. Fortunately the more resourceful "Opera Cake" has since reminded me that "moronic" and "moron" exist: this was a moronic production that took us all for morons.

By what process, I have often wondered, do people who have never directed an opera before get invited to do it? Of course, you have to start somewhere; and of course, sometimes it's a success: I remember being surprised when Warlikowski, who admitted he hadn’t a clue about opera, was asked, but he has since become my favourite director. As usual, I had to look Zabou Breitman up. She has acted in lots of films, and the very person who sent me the text message tells me she is genuinely talented at that. I'll take his word for it. Her production was indescribably cringe-making, like the very worst of school plays, with wobbly painted sets and shaky crepe-paper vegetation, a brainless oriental fantasy worthy of a tacky provincial Christmas panto, with acting at least as badly directed and far fewer laughs; indeed no laughs at all. Benny Hill would have done a better job. My neighbour swore blonde’s litter was copied from a Belgian cartoon strip called Marsupilami.

Blonde's litter
I felt sorry for the extras, looking forlorn as they slouched around with nothing to do, and the belly dancers: yes, there were even belly dancers. The spoof "silent film" images projected on the curtain during the overture showed promise that was not fulfilled. I imagine they were intended to prepare us for a naive treatment of the oriental theme. But if the action was supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, I'm afraid it just looked incompetently directed; and if the use of exclusively Moorish designs (including some djellabas among the rag-bag of corny costumes) in a supposedly Ottoman setting was meant to be an elaborate joke, it fell flat: it came across as sheer ignorance.

The Paris Opera website rattles on regardless about the serious messages behind the plot: “... humanist values […] the virtues of tolerance and fidelity in love, the celebration of human goodness [which] prefigure those developed in The Magic Flute and La Clemenza di Tito, [Mozart's] final operatic masterpieces. A metaphor for the combat between Liberty and all forms of absolutism, Belmonte’s quest to deliver Konstanze from Selim’s yoke resounded throughout Europe, inspired at that time by the spirit of the Enlightenment. ‘All our efforts to express the essence of things came to nothing in the aftermath of Mozart’s appearance. Die Entführung towered above us all,’ wrote Goethe, overwhelmed by the composer’s nobleness of spirit and radiant optimism.” Excusez du peu. Well, there was no sign of anything of that sort in last night’s shipwreck.

A future opera director
Whatever their intrinsic merits - and Bernhard Richter, for one, has undeniably displayed those, as Atys, for example, in 2011 - the mostly young singers were not up to their parts in a space of Garnier's size (Garnier may be smaller than the Bastille but it still has 2,000 seats) and over a modern orchestra. Konstanze's dramatic "Welcher Wechsel herrscht in meiner Seele" was met last night with excruciating silence. And not everyone was as audible as Erin Morley: my elderly neighbour (on the fourth row) wondered aloud if her hearing was going as, so she claimed, some of the soloists were inaudible. The impression I got, though admittedly I may just have been projecting my own dismay on the cast, was that everyone involved realized that this was one giant turkey and had lost heart, for which they can't be blamed.

The only brief pleasure I got personally from the undertaking was listening to the excellent quartet of soloists ordered out of the pit by Selim himself to accompany "Martern aller Arten" on stage. "Bravi" to them. If the evening improved in any way after the interval, I can't say: we were off to an early dinner - mercimek çorbası, köfte, sütlaç at the Turks'.

*At Karakol, between the entrance gate and St Irene's church. This is an excellent restaurant, open-air in fine weather with views down to the Sea of Marmara, and it's a shame it doesn't open in the evening as excellent restaurants are hard to find at dinner time over in the old city.

Maestro Wenarto sings "Konstanze! dich wiederzusehen!

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