It’s been 15 years since baroque conductor and scholar René Jacobs started recording operas by Mozart and at each instalment, one never knows exactly what to expect. Whether you like the final result or not (personally, I would take his Cosí to a desert island, but I never warmed to his Don Giovanni), one thing is sure: the Belgian maestro’s approach is always going to be quite different from what you have ever heard before. Last Saturday’s superb semi-staged performance of die Entführung aus dem Serail at the Concertgebouw certainly had that iconoclastic character, and was the more exciting for it.

Even without costumes and sets, the whole performance was a thrillingly theatrical experience. Soloists occupied the podium as if it were a stage, entering and exiting the Great Hall via just about every possible door. They sang but also acted their parts vividly. And one of the major surprises came from the libretto.  Die Entführung  is a Singspiel in which extensive dialogs in German are usually heavily truncated both in performances or recordings. In this performance, most of these dialogs (possibly all of them) were restored. This approach sounds quite drastic, but for all the reputation of Johann Gottlieb Stephanie as a poor librettist, I found those light-hearted dialogs engaging and sometimes quite witty. Not only did they carry the action forward and emphasize the comical character of the work, but they also gave each soloist the opportunity to paint their character more completely.

I guess making use of more extensive dialogs also helped to make the entirely spoken role of Pasha Selim fit into the action more easily. By choosing to cast the role with Cornelius Obonya, Mr. Jacobs definitely went for a very characteristic voice. The Austrian actor’s hoarse voice somewhat unsettled the public at first, sounding almost like Marlon Brando’s Godfather.

Another surprise was Mr. Jacobs’ addition of a fortepiano continuo. In Singspiel, we are used to hear the dialogs unaccompanied. Here, the fortepiano was used at times to underline spoken phrases. Here and there, the continuo discreetly hinted at melodies borrowed from other works by Mozart. It especially brought an additional atmospheric dimension to some of Pasha Selim’s long spoken monologues.

The rest of the cast was entirely composed of young singers. Mari Eriksmoen was an charming and malicious Blonde with a light and elegant soprano well-suited to the fiery English maid.  As Konstanze, Robin Johannssen’s soprano boasted a middle range with silvery tones. The Berlin-based American soprano sang  “Traurigkeit ward mir zum Lose” very affectingly, but I found her rendition of “Martern aller Arten” lacking in brilliance, the voice sometimes thinning at the top and the bottom becoming practically inaudible above the orchestra.

The male side of the cast was just perfect.  As Pedrillo, Julian Prégardien allied both appealing singing and jubilatory acting. Maximilian Schmitt’s Belmonte impressed by his powerful and manly lyric sound and with aptly executed fioritura in “Ich baue ganz auf deine Stärke”. Mr Schmitt was Tamino in a 2012 Dutch National Opera production of Die Zauberflöte and his voice sounds perfect for Mozart heroes. The strongest performance however came from Dimitry Ivaschenko. The Russian bass, combining splendid deep tone with extreme flexibility, managed to convey the comical side of his character, without reducing it to the buffoonery that often mars other interpretations. One would not expect the role of Osmin to steal the show but with his towering stature and stylish singing, he thoroughly enchanted the audience.

Totally at one with the theatrical approach to the performance, the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin followed the maestro’s contrasted tempi and played superbly. The period orchestra boasted no less than three percussionists playing various instruments that added to the mock “Turkish” feel of the music. The choir of the Janissaries was impeccably interpreted by Capella Amsterdam.

You might still be lucky to catch the last performance of this tour in Brussels on Monday 22nd. Otherwise, this performance at the Concertgebouw took place a few days after Mr. Jacobs recorded the work in the studio with the same team of soloists and orchestra. Without the visual support, that recording will be a very different experience but I’d certainly be keen to see if it matches up to my memories.