Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio received a pacy, amusing retelling at the hands of Alison Moritz who directed this Singspiel to open the season for the Lyric Opera of Kansas City. Witty and lightly-handled, the conceit was that of a louche and glamorous night club set in 1940s Hollywood, its name ‘Seraglio’ lit up in neon purple, its interior part members-only pleasure palace (think all the usual trappings of glitz and sequined bling of Tinseltown), part Rick’s from Casablanca (dinner jackets, gambling, slick bar and tables, and at least one aria, “Ach ich liebte war so glücklich”, where Konstanze was, in effect, a nightclub singer in front of a vintage mic: the ‘star’ act).

<i>The Abduction from the Seraglio</i> © Karli Cadel for Lyric Opera of Kansas City
The Abduction from the Seraglio
© Karli Cadel for Lyric Opera of Kansas City

When settings are updated like this, one often has to put up with losing out on something, to a greater or lesser or extent, but here, Moritz seemed to have her cake and eat it. The original plot owed much to Viennese fetishisation of Turkish exoticism and libertinage. But neither was Golden Age Hollywood any stranger to essentialising the Orient (again, think Casablanca or The Road to Morocco). So we had the club’s staff in fez and Turkish military-style uniforms, notably the looming bulk of Matt Boehler as the comically powerful and deep-voiced Osmin.

Meanwhile, the Pasha Selim himself, the coolly-controlled actor Matthew J Williamson, projected the utmost power, as if he was not just a Hollywood club-manager, but a sort of Ataturk character in Western dress. He had so much presence, despite (because of?) the fact that he doesn’t sing, that one is almost tempted (despite his earlier behavior) to side with him at the last; he put so much meaning into his “I hope you won’t regret your choice” that the audience gave a rueful laugh. His, at any rate, was the last gesture – toasting his glass to the bride, and emphatically not touching her as she approached him to bid farewell. All in all, an interesting portrayal of a character who can, in some productions, look one-dimensional.

Matt Boehler (Osmin) and Ben Bliss (Belmonte) © Karli Cadel for Lyric Opera of Kansas City
Matt Boehler (Osmin) and Ben Bliss (Belmonte)
© Karli Cadel for Lyric Opera of Kansas City

Ben Bliss, a native Kansas Citian, was back to make his debut here as Belmonte (as a side note, his mother is a singer in the chorus, so this was something of a family affair). His voice is elegantly Mozartian, its tones and nuances sensitively rendered, long notes well sustained, breath controlled admirably. There was nothing unrefined or forced about his tone; it was entirely fitting throughout.

Kathryn Lewek was a powerful Konstanze, singing with feeling and passion, and at times pathos, as she speaks truth to power. Her great aria “All Kinds of Torture”, one of the most challenging and long in the repertoire, was sung with virtuosity and brought the first act to a stirring close. Rachele Gilmore and Joseph Leppek were a successful and funny pairing as Blonde and Pedrillo, their voices blending well with the leads in their harmonious and adversarial quartets. Leppek and Boehler played off each other amusingly throughout, the drunken scene conducted with particular dramatic verve.

Kathryn Lewek (Konstanze) and Matthew J. Williamson (Pasha Selim) © Karli Cadel for Lyric Opera of Kansas City
Kathryn Lewek (Konstanze) and Matthew J. Williamson (Pasha Selim)
© Karli Cadel for Lyric Opera of Kansas City

Michael Christie led the orchestra in a sprightly pace; the chorus were in good voice. The sets designed by Steven C Kemp were very clever; a revolving block showed the exterior of the nightclub, and later on, its restaurant, a boudoir, the manager’s domain with its inevitable velvet sofa. During the escape scenes, a fire escape staircase was the main feature (Bliss’ elegant tenor seemed unaffected by all that climbing).

In sum, this was a most successful and enjoyable performance of Mozart’s Abduction, blithely bringing together both old and new, with some beautiful performances.

*****