During the overture of Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail at the Bayerische Saatsoper, a line of men removes their shirts, then drops their trousers. Clad only in a towel, each man picks up a black “X” and places it over his crotch. These are the seraglio’s eunuchs. Next come the women of the harem—each dressed brightly, dancing on a color-coordinated flying sofa. It’s pretty clear we’re in for a whimsical staging of a rather silly Singspiel.

Bernd Schmidt as Bassa Selim, Sandrine Piau as Konstanze © Wilfried Hösl
Bernd Schmidt as Bassa Selim, Sandrine Piau as Konstanze
© Wilfried Hösl
Director Martin Duncan employs the common tactic of a story-within-a-story, but in an unusual way. The eunuchs, harem women, and principals inhabit a timeless and exotic Turkey. They travel by sofa, dress like there’s still an Ottoman Empire, and occasionally look to the narrator for guidance about what to do next. (Yes, there’s a narrator: the principals’ dialogue has all been replaced by third-person explanations. Demet Gül delivers them perfectly—she has a knack for making it seem like you’re the only person she’s talking to, an impressive feat in a 2,100-seat theatre.) The narrator and backdrop artist wear hijab with head scarfs and face veils; they live in the Turkey of today. So do the counterweight operators (for those flying sofas), who periodically saunter across the stage guzzling soft drinks, draped in Turkish flags.

The props and sets also remind us constantly that we’re watching a story. Sofas are adaptable but can’t form every needed setting. Eunuchs double as walking tables loaded with bowls of fruit. Sometimes, actors simply mime a missing prop or set piece. The backdrops –drawn in real time by an onstage artist (Isabella Kretzdorn) with a pair of monitors and an electronic sketchpad – also do much of the scene-setting work. This is particularly effective during Pedrillo’s aria “In Mohrenland”. The blue sofa becomes a boat, and hand-drawn stars appear in the sky one by one as Pedrillo and Belmonte row.

Sandrine Piau as Konstanze © Wilfried Hösl
Sandrine Piau as Konstanze
© Wilfried Hösl
Now for the human stars: Entführung is Konstanze’s show, and Lisette Oropresa doesn’t disappoint. “Ach, ich liebte” is not an easy first aria, and she falters on a few high notes and trills. But by the time she reaches Konstanze’s showpiece “Martern aller Arten”, she’s tossing off coloratura and high Ds with ease and looking fiercely defiant, to boot. It’s easy for Blondchen to get lost in Konstanze’s shadow, but Rebecca Nelsen is memorable thanks to her clear sound and strong personality, especially during “Welche Wonne, welche Lust”, in which she exasperates Pedrillo by coyly singing her joy to everyone but him. As Konstanze’s fiancé Belmonte, Javier Camarena impresses as usual with his powerful but nuanced tenor. Matthew Grills delivers a few spirited, tuneful arias as Belmonte’s servant Pedrillo. Bass Franz Howlata plays the villainous Osmin with gleeful mustache-twirling.

The German diction of the cast is generally good, but not quite good enough to justify the decision to perform the piece without supertitles. The narration between pieces keeps the audience from losing the thread of the (admittedly simple) plot, but it would be nice to understand every word of the arias as well.

Die Enthührung aus dem Serail © Wilfried Hösl
Die Enthührung aus dem Serail
© Wilfried Hösl
Musically, Constantin Trinks draws good texture and dynamic variety from the Bayerische Staatsorchester, although their dulcet tones sometimes clash harshly with the squeak of the sofas’ tracks and flies. Maestro Trinks doesn’t always manage to keep the instruments quite in time with the singers, especially Osmin, but that’s always a risk on the opening night of a work with so many fast-moving arias.

On the whole, the production works well. It’s a visually arresting, unconventional take on the opera that’s still easy to understand. I didn’t personally appreciate the replacement of the dialogue with narration – good though the narrator is, the theatre lover in me always prefers first-person onstage action to third-person accounts. That said, it serves a good purpose: Combined with the onstage creation of the backdrops, it makes the opera’s Orientalism more palatable by emphasizing its fantastical setting. Putting most of the action on flying sofas doesn’t hurt that cause, either.

****1