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13 July, 2007

Seraglio at the Sydney Opera House. Get a ticket if you can!

Die Entführung aus dem Serail. The Abduction from the Seraglio

Friday 13th July 2007.

Conductor Jonathan Darlington. Direction Michael Gow. Design: Robert Kemp.

Originally done in 2000, this ‘Middle Eastern Airport’ production of Seraglio pre-dated the modern era of east-west relations. It was a worthy reprise, uncomplicated by the disasters of the opening season (mostly winter viruses and not terrorism).

The night came off without a hitch … well, almost. A disturbed or very young person seated in the front stalls kept oohing and ahring loudly, especially in the quiet patches. At times, she was more audible than matters on stage! I am sure the management does not wish to court controversy, but it was embarrassing.

Emma Matthews and Natalie Jones were excellent as Constanza and Blonde, the latter in blue jeans and bare-waisted. And they both put in a succession of high notes suitably spaced by all the many others, as written by the demanding young Mozart (he never got old, of course). ‘Marter aller arten’ is one of the great feats of endurance for the coloratura and remarkably, both of these sopranos have performed it on this stage!

The night’s major delight, however, was young Australian tenor Andrew Goodwin who has apparently been training in St Petersburg, Russia. He sang the socks off the difficult role of Belmonte including his beautiful and difficult aria ‘Ich bauer ganz’. He just might be our great white hope, given the as yet unexplained absence of the public’s favourite tenor, David Hobson. Apparently unpopular with management, he was still in excellent voice when last we heard him. Mr Goodwin played Fenton for us in 2006 and he seems to have progressed nicely both vocally and dramatically to encompass Belmonte. His voice has a pleasant timbre while also being accurate and substantial.

Company regular Andrew Brunsdon seemed relaxed and comfortable as Pedrillo, no mean feat either.

Peter Rose from England did a full voiced Osmin and we were off to a head start for good opera. Yet somehow after an excellent first act, the tension seemed to lag, suspense waned and nothing much waxed, leaving a slightly empty feeling at the end, despite nothing going awry. Maybe it is the ‘rescue’ drama and lack of curtain corpses in this middle ranking moral comedy.

Kenneth Ransom plays an excellent Pasha Selim, one of the only major roles in opera which requires no singing. After a grubby and drab Middle Eastern airport for act I we were transported to an immaculate room in the palace replete with the fineries of Islamic art as currently on show at the Art Gallery of NSW.

The World Trade Center attacks altered western life in so many ways, including the way we attend opera. Only Wagner probably made greater changes. We have all had to get used to added security, double ticket checks, less access for cars and bag/body searches. This production, which just pre-dates the New York unpleasantness, may not be as acceptable nowadays to some. The Prophet (MHBP) is mentioned more than once and Moslem habits put on show. Polygamy, male dominance, female modesty, abstinence from alcohol and prayers are all showcased. Brutish militias are paraded with AK47-type weaponry. Despite some negative aspects of eastern foibles, the plot hinges on the compassion of the Pasha, showing the less publicized but probably more common ‘soft’ side of Mohammedan principles.

I found English dialogue and German vocals to be a most satisfactory compromise. Perhaps once day it will be done in Arabic! The orchestra and chorus were excellent under Maestro Darlington. Such a work is ideally suited to the Sydney Opera hall which seats 1500. There are major plans afoot for a reconstruction of this hall but no guarantees that acoustics will be bettered or even maintained in the process. I say leave it alone as it is ideal for most Puccini, Donizetti and Mozart operas with the Wagner and other ‘Grande’ operas (eg. Aida) moved to the Concert Hall (seats 2700).

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..