Lenneke Ruiten is the main reason to see Dutch National Opera's Die Entführung aus dem Serail. On opening night she triumphed as Konstanze, a soprano role that is the vocal equivalent of balancing a water jug on your head while walking a tightrope. Johan Simons’ production from 2008 has not aged well. Scenes plotted around sofas and coloratura sex (short, fast notes as orgasmic squeals) are now so commonplace as to feel clichéd. But there are enough musical qualities to compensate. The Netherlands Chamber Orchestra was slick and sprightly under Jérémie Rhorer and bass Peter Rose made an impressive Osmin.

Lenneke Ruiten (Konstanze) © Michel Schnater
Lenneke Ruiten (Konstanze)
© Michel Schnater

Mozart’s rescue comedy, about a Spanish nobleman trying to abduct his fiancée from a Turkish harem, pits East against West and Muslim against Christian. The libretto exploits cultural clashes for humour, and its preconceptions and orientalist bias make it a challenge to stage. To his credit, Simons tackles these problems head-on. He unveils the plot on a small stage, framed by a sultry painting of a harem scene, within the actual stage. The cast switches between Western and Eastern (Arab rather than Ottoman) costumes. Simons seems to be saying that the way the Western couples, Belmonte and Konstanze and their two servants, see their captors is illusory, like theatrical artifice. Only Osmin, the thuggish overseer of the Pasha’s household, never puts on Western clothes, and this stresses what a cartoonish stereotype he is. In the final act, the onstage theatre comes crumbling down, as do the Europeans’ expectations of the Turks. The Pasha (Bassa Selim) has the power to retain Konstanze as his slave, and to take revenge on his worst enemy by hurting his son, Belmonte. He does neither, letting his captives go free.

Steven Van Watermeulen (Bassa Selim) © Michel Schnater
Steven Van Watermeulen (Bassa Selim)
© Michel Schnater

Cultural misconception as theatrical deception — it is a sound concept. Unfortunately, its execution falters at the technical level. The spoken dialogue keeps snagging on pauses and drags on. Simons aims at dark comedy, but most of the humour falls flat. Among the singers, Ruiten and Rose came closest to delivering their lines naturally. The sets and costumes manage to be dull and garish at the same time, probably deliberately. The point that Western images of the East are tawdry and fallacious is well taken, but why does Bassa Selim’s house look like a tacky night club with a harem theme? The sheer ugliness of the colliding colours within the brownish décor removes a crucial element of the fascination with the Orient, namely, its seductive power, as does the puzzling portrayal of the Pasha. Here Konstanze has fully succumbed to the Pasha’s charms, but just what these are remains a mystery. Actor Steven Van Watermeulen is directed to play a Bassa Selim totally shorn of charisma. He is a world-weary, love-sick clown, bitter as myrrh and ripe for psychoanalysis.

Fortunately, no amount of clashing cushions and Pinteresque pauses can suppress Entführung’s musical effervescence. Rhorer started the orchestra’s pinpoint performance with a brisk, almost militaristic overture, anticipating the giddy choruses. Driven and alert, he was largely sensitive to the singers, although he had to slow down a couple of times to allow breathing. The musicians responded with a disciplined and nimble performance, with liquid sweetness in the woodwinds and gleeful capers in the brass. Rhorer thrived in multiple-singer excerpts, such as the flawlessly paced drinking duet and the thrillingly spun quartet at the end of Act II.

Peter Rose (Osmin) © Michel Schnater
Peter Rose (Osmin)
© Michel Schnater

Ultimately, performances of this vocally exacting opera stand or fall by the quality of the singers. Lenneke Ruiten’s technical wizardry alone justifies the production’s revival, and her acting makes her peppery, stressed-out Konstanze utterly convincing. Her slender soprano has a fragile quality, but twists, loops and stretches without a hint of fraying. She tinged the sadness of “Traurigkeit” with nervous desperation and combined stunning technique with temperament in the showstopper “Martern aller Arten”. Paul Appleby sang all of Belmonte’s four arias. Alas, Mozart is not his métier. He got through three of them acceptably by dint of his handsome, sinewy tenor and by attacking the text with emphasis. Punching loud notes into the air, however, was not enough for the demanding “Ich baue ganz”. Belmonte requires a more caressing tone and greater agility. Hopefully, this talented singer will return to Amsterdam in a role that plays to his strengths.

Tenor David Portillo was exemplary as Belmonte’s servant Pedrillo, with flexible legato and clarion top notes. As his sweetheart and fellow captive, Blonde, Siobhan Stagg was somewhat lustreless in “Durch Zärtlichkeit und Schmeicheln”. Maybe playing a prim PA in a tweed skirt and opaque tights inhibited her Blonde’s playfulness. “Welche Wonne, welche Lust” was, however, delightful and earned her a round of applause. Word- and note-perfect, Peter Rose was a resonant, larger-than-life Osmin. His unerring comic instinct injected a much-needed dose of humour into an evening plagued by the doldrums.