After the première of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail in Zurich, the “boos” were directed at the staging rather than the singers. But if, before seeing David Hermann’s new production, you were unfamiliar with who’s who in this buffa, you’d surely be lost, for the staging was as disconcerting as it was discombobulated.

In the original, which premiered in Vienna in 1782, the noble Konstanze has been imprisoned in palace of the Turkish Pasha Selim, who tries unsuccessfully to seduce her, and then threatens her with torture for refusing to oblige him. She and her maid Blondchen are guarded by the Pasha’s lecherous overseer, Osmin, who fails to foil the womens’ attempted rescue by Konstanze’s lover, Belmonte, and his servant Pedrillo. As viewers might hope, the pasha magnanimously forgives his prisoners and releases them in the end.

In Hermann’s version, Osmin was a fairly loveable character, the chorus often sang with stone cold faces, and two pairs of “identical twins” played the roles of the two pairs of lovers. That alone was unsettling. Are we dealing with alter egos? A comic scene of two men – Pedrillo and Osmin – in bed together gave a new dimension to characters “coming out”, but whether that boosted our appreciation of Mozart’s sublime score, or was designed just to offer some risqué fun was debatable. There was much confusion here, perhaps for the audience to better identify with the pain the characters had suffered for their initial losses.

Fortunately, the singing was good. As Konstanze, Olga Peretyatko gave a sure-footed performance. Her steely soprano lacked modulation at the start, but she seemed to warm up in her role as the evening wore on, and manoeuvred the awkward staging with grace and aplomb. In her debut role as Blondchen, Claire de Sévigné would have had an easier time relaxing without the handicap of high spike heels. Unfortunately, but through no fault of her own, being the double of her mistress rendered any deferential, maid-like lyrics utterly senseless.

As Belmonte, Pavol Breslik has a sonorous tenor and commanding stage presence, but his constant galumphing from side to side of the stage, banging into locked doors, was just tiresome. Nahuel Di Pierro was Osmin, maître d’ and head waiter in the opening scenes, met the extraordinary challenge of his treacherously low notes superbly, and had consummate acting skills. As Pedrillo, Micheal Laurenz sang with confidence and colour.

Ester Geremus' costumes for the chorus were timeless; their clean lines, neither frills nor fancy, serving far better than anything in harem trumpery. The principal female roles wore form-fitting satin dresses, nicely setting them apart as “foreigners”. The sets (Bettina Meyer) by contrast, were a deliberate hodgepodge, rotating among a four-star dining area, Konstanze’s grimly decorated prison room, a zigzag of black supersized crystals, and by contrast, a hard-lit white light tunnel that seemed straight out of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Most enigmatic of all, however, were the sounds that filtered into the house between stage changes. What first seemed the humming of a hydraulic lift gone awry underwent variations afterwards that showed that the intergalactic sounds were part of the production.

Under the baton of young, highly animated conductor Maxim Emelyanyhev, the Orchestra La Scintilla gave a solid, if less than illuminated, performance. My own attempts to order the impulses on stage distracted from the music, such that the usual range of moods, emotional insights and jubilant climax in Mozart’s score fell by the wayside. To its great credit, the sombre choir played down the disparaging confusion.

Granted, there were injections of original details: the choir in full-body, netted burkas boosted the degree of suspense and underscored the “who’s who?” component. Osmin appeared at one point as a properly turbaned, burly pasha himself, complete with a swashbuckler’s steel blades. Also original was how, in the non-speaking role of Pasha Selim, the lean and tall Sam Louwyck stood like a Giacometti sculpture while more human, frenzied antics transpired around him. Even better, his character could magically disappear, take on an invisible cloak and enable him to reconstruct. Knock him down; he materialized again like spilled milk coming up from the floor. Such antics lent a certain creepy otherworldliness, but one questioned why here

Perhaps the possibilities opened by “why not here?” are reason enough to fiddle with an opera. Under that aegis, in Act III, Blondchen sings with a Barbie doll smile at the audience while mock-masturbating her male pendent; and – in case you missed it – repeats the entire sequence two minutes later. If that kind of humour floats your boat, you’ll surely like this production. My own appreciation was lost between a rock and a hard place.