The harmonie’s musicians – a small configuration of woodwinds known as the “La Scintilla dei Fiati”, were all drawn from Zurich Opera House’s own Baroque chamber group. The group promotes historically informed works, and takes its name – derservedly − after the scintillating sounds it makes. In German, the word Harmonie is still used to connote a musical ensemble of wind instruments. From the mid-18th century onward, the Emperor of Austria and his nobles kept such Harmonien, bands, which usually consisted of pairs of oboes, horns, bassoons, and clarinets. As part of the household musical staff, these wind groups would serenade banquets, hunting and garden parties with palatable accompaniment.

Caroline Fischer-Achten as Konstanze in <i>Die Entführung aus dem Serail</i>
Caroline Fischer-Achten as Konstanze in Die Entführung aus dem Serail

The Zurich Harmonie included four percussionists, whose parts were modest, but inordinately fun, since, in keeping with the opera’s scenes around the harem, they played on everything Turkish. One large rattle of tiny cymbals that clattered for effect transported me to an Istanbul bazaar. The barrel-sized drum under one player’s arm beat to melodies one could easily dance to. Altogether, the fine musicians played 15 of the opera’s arias, sandwiching them between a dynamic overture and a spirited finale.

Both as concertmaster and conductor, Philipp Mahrenholz did a stunning job. Zurich Opera’s principal oboist had to use his body to impart his directions: bending forward, cueing by lifting his instrument or raising an eyebrow. Clarinettist Robert Pickup was opposite him, and kept up an animated dialogue throughout. Pickup is a virtuoso player in his own right; even the most complicated passages failed to daunt him, and he mastered a startling range, whether in a voice demonstrative and heavy, or one querying and demure.

The horns, too, were admirable, despite the few wobbles. Given that their historical instruments have no valves and are only capable of playing in one key, players use their hands to partially or fully close the bell, thereby altering the pitch or achieving a wider range. They also use “crooks,” tubes of varying lengths that can be inserted into the horn to change key. Strewn beneath the two horns, the many “crooks” used in the Mozart made a filigree of the floor beneath their feet.

Susanne Johnson directed this semi-staging of a text that Feridun Zaimoglu and Günter Senkel had penned in 2014/2105. Their short play was a modern take on the intrigues, misguided affections and star-crossed affairs of the opera’s original libretto. There was no singing, but the voices of six actors instead, whose parts had been made considerably simpler and far more scatological than the original. All six appeared in modern black dress, barring the pasha, who wore a white button-down Oxford cloth that set him apart. Sadly, much of their spoken dialogue escaped me, either because their projection was sub-optimal, or the action was too pale. I tired of the ever-recurring track of insect chirps, and took umbrage with one 10-minute audio segment that ran us through some of the most dramatic content (a capture, gross accusations) while all of us – actors, musicians, audience − sat in the pitch black. I don’t discount trying something new, but that went a little too far.

Of the acting roles, the brightest light was certainly the authentic Osmin (Jaap Achterberg), who visually fit the part as the servant to Pasha Selim, and whose brutal imaginings − particularly in the dialogue around “Martern aller Arten” (Tortures of all Kinds) − made us in the audience shiver. As Pasha Selim, Aaron Hitz also took kudos for his portrayal of an Ottoman despot who, while an oily suitor, gave credence to true love in the end. He gives, namely, the feisty Konstanze (Juliane Lang) and her brave Belmonte (Sebastian Schneider) their freedom, extending that privilege to their handmaiden Blonde (Lotti Happli) and manservant Pedrillo (André Wilmund) as well, both acted well.

Since the music was the thing, there was precious little “staging” here, just a couple of chairs and a single red velvet-covered sofa. Yet behind the players, an elaborately painted Victorian stage flat couldn’t have been more appropriate to the piece. Dating from the Gründerzeit, it shows a whole cast of female mythological figures: a great white Nike, winged goddess of victory, standing dead centre and holding a up a large lyre, symbol of the glory of song; Pallas Athena, patroness of learning and the arts, shown spreading her benevolent and civilizing influence; and the figures in the foreground representing the muses of drama (the mask), poetry (the book) and music (the flute). If Mozart knew his Harmonie would be played by such gifted musicians against that noble background, he’d surely have been pleased.