James Robinson's 1997 Roaring Twenties, art deco update of Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail, takes place on the Orient Express headed from Istanbul to Paris, with Belgrade in between. It reached the LA Opera terminus Saturday night before embarking on its six-performance run. For most of the trip, it was more like a rail-bound Love Boat episode, where the guest celebrities were actors from Mozart in the Jungle, than an actual Mozart opera.

Morris Robinson (Osmin) and Brenton Ryan (Pedrillo) © Craig T Mathew
Morris Robinson (Osmin) and Brenton Ryan (Pedrillo)
© Craig T Mathew

In Robinson's version, an uncertain Konstanze (Sally Matthews), a moderately flirty Blondchen (So Young Park) and an acrobatic, elegant Pedrillo (Brenton Ryan), all plainly dressed, are being held captive in the private car of the tall, lecherous, loud-mouthed, despotic Pasha Selim (Hamish Linklater) – exquisitely dressed and in the Western manner, in flannels, with a silver cigarette case. By contrast, the enormous Osmin (Morris Robinson) appeared in a series of stock Turkish costumes, to which Pedrillo gave a nasty edge by kicking over Osmin kneeling in prayer. It was reasonable perhaps as a kind of vaudevillian pay back for Pedrillo, who earlier had been expertly hog-tied by Robinson while singing an impressive "Solche hergelaufne Laffen", but it was still painful to watch.

Sally Matthews (Konstanze) and Joel Prieto (Belmonte) © Craig T Mathew
Sally Matthews (Konstanze) and Joel Prieto (Belmonte)
© Craig T Mathew
Pitted against the larger than life Linklater, Joel Prieto's endearingly clueless, exceptionally sweet-voiced Belmonte, dressed the same as his rival but with the additional kit of tennis racquet, balls and ukulele, seemed almost an afterthought at times. Grant Gershon's excellent LA Opera Chorus was stationed behind the set so were basically invisible. 

The action took place entirely in the living room and kitchen of the Pasha's lavishly-appointed car, slung low across the stage like a diorama painted in gorgeously muted dark earth tones by Edward Hopper; the set was dominated by a antique French map of the route lit up like a subway map, that served as the curtain and never went more than two-thirds up. The action was largely static; except for the various encounters with Osmin, arias were sung with minimal expressive movement, sometimes alone, sometimes, when it was the upper class, seated in exquisite frieze-like poses. The effect was to highlight those sudden, extraordinary moments of profound emotion that came from Mozart's soul beyond the light-hearted comedy. 

LA Opera must have felt pride in casting two alumni of its Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program: Park's delightfully soubrettish Blondchen (sporting jet-black Louise Brooks bangs) and Ryan's resourceful Pedrillo provided some of the night's most charming moments. While Prieto's Belmonte, when left unhurried, expanded into authentically lovely territory, Matthews' richly-voiced Konstanze never found her comfort range, and Robinson's Osmin was great in the midrange but lacked range.

Cast of <i>Die Entführung aus dem Serail</i> © Craig T Mathew
Cast of Die Entführung aus dem Serail
© Craig T Mathew

In the pit, James Conlon kept Mozart's endlessly ingenious, energetic, infectious score synched to the action taking place on stage to the extent that, during the orchestral introduction to "Martern aller Arten," its iconic solos for violin, cello, oboe and bassoon were covered up by fussy stage business which, being the way of the theatre, Mozart would have understood, and which the audience thoroughly appreciated. The orchestra played throughout with lots of fun and scrambling nervous energy, the strings at times were decisive and razor sharp, and the woodwinds throughout were eloquent and colorful the way Mozart liked them to be. 

Hard to miss were four short supernumeraries wrapped entirely in black, who served as the Pasha's harem; whether standing or seated (on the floor, as harem wives do), they were more like traffic cones than people. In the town that sent Invasion of the Body Snatchers into the world, you had to wonder whether this would have been Konstanze's fate if she had capitulated to Selim's advances.