“Too many notes, dear Mozart.” The authenticity (and translation) of Joseph II’s judgement on The Abduction from the Seraglio may be creaky but the Emperor’s quip is oft-repeated possibly because – whisper it – the opera can sometimes feel tediously long. “There are just as many notes as there should be,” was the composer’s stout defence, and you get the feeling John Copley would agree. Tackling the opera at the grand old age of 85, the veteran director’s production for The Grange Festival fairly zipped along… without cutting too many of Mozart’s notes.

Jonathan Lemalu (Osmin) and Paul Curievici (Pedrillo) © Simon Annand
Jonathan Lemalu (Osmin) and Paul Curievici (Pedrillo)
© Simon Annand

Seraglio can be problematic for modern directors uncomfortable with Western attitudes to Muslims as portrayed in the piece. Copley isn’t interested in exploring those murky depths and presents it as pantomime, which honours its Singspiel roots, perhaps, but occasionally lacks sincerity. Ed Lyon channels a floppy-haired Hugh Grant (“I say, old chap”) as Belmonte arrives in Turkey to rescue his fiancée, Konstanze, from the Pasha’s harem. Daisy Brown’s pert Blonde declares that “It’s women who rule the roost!” in rebuffing the advances of Jonathan Lemalu’s slimy overseer, Osmin. There’s plenty of knockabout physical comedy – gags with ladders, Osmin whipping the hapless Pedrillo – and David Parry’s new translation is filled with jokes, although the decision to use surtitles (despite excellent diction from the singers) means that the audience often chuckles before they are delivered. There’s an oddly old-fashioned flavour to lines like “mincing little nancy”, but Parry rejoices in rhyming “baffled” with “scaffold” as Osmin thinks he’s triumphed in foiling the escape bid.

Alexander Andreou (Pasha Selim) © Simon Annand
Alexander Andreou (Pasha Selim)
© Simon Annand

Osmin is a comic figure but I’m not sure the Pasha should be presented in quite the same way. Despite detaining Konstanze and Blonde in his harem, he’s a noble leader, who prefers to offer the westerners their freedom rather than succumb to cruelty to avenge himself against Belmonte’s father, his sworn enemy. Strangely, Alexander Andreou, is made to adopt a faux Turkish accent – when Lemalu’s Osmin speaks in perfect Received Pronunciation – and puts on a panto villain act. Even in his act of clemency, the Pasha can’t resist a joke, promising Osmin “I’ve saved you from a fate worse than death” in releasing the feisty Blonde. But Copley’s production plays it by the book, so we actually get Osmin up a tree, picking figs, just as the libretto tells us. Tim Reed’s simple set and the gorgeous traditional costumes look splendid.

Ed Lyon (Belmonte) and Kiandra Howarth (Konstanze) © Simon Annand
Ed Lyon (Belmonte) and Kiandra Howarth (Konstanze)
© Simon Annand

For the most part, it is well sung too. Ed Lyon has quite a muscular tenor for Belmonte and was occasionally challenged by the ornamentation in Act 2, yet he can float a honeyed pianissimo like nobody’s business. Paul Curievici was a strong Pedrillo, clean-toned, enjoying larking about as Belmonte’s sidekick. Kiandra Howarth had an aggressive upper register at the start but settled to deliver a powerful “Martern aller Arten”; she and Lyon were best in their duet as they prepare to face death, tenderly sung. Daisy Brown was a pretty-voiced Blonde, with crystal clear top notes. At the other end of the vocal scale, Jonathan Lemalu plumbed the bass depths well as the irascible grump, Osmin. From the overture, peppered by percussion slips, I was less than convinced by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s Mozart. Under Jean-Luc Tingaud, the playing was often tubby, with scratchy solos in the introduction to Konstanze’s declaration of faithfulness to Belmonte. Hopefully, it will find lighter feet during the run.

***11