When Mozart opera works, you lose your sense of time and place, you forget that you’re in an opera house, you’re not sure if you’re supposed to be laughing or crying. Even experienced critics lose their ability to evaluate, transported by the music to some different mental sphere. And that is decidedly what happened with Paris Opera’s new production of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail, now playing in the gilt splendour of the Palais Garnier.

Anna Prohaska as Blonde © Agathe Poupeney/Opéra National de Paris
Anna Prohaska as Blonde
© Agathe Poupeney/Opéra National de Paris

Mozart, it seems to me, was incapable of writing a truly straight comedy. So Die Entführung may have plenty of standard comic elements – the master-servant relationships, the duping of the old man, even some slapstick – but these are continually interrupted by moments of high emotion: the steadfast constancy of Konstanze (the clue is in the name), self-doubt and deep despair from her beloved Belmonte, raw violence and anger from Bassa Selim’s thuggish servant Osmin, jubilation from (nearly) all at the ending. For a production to work, it needs a director who is highly sensitive to the work’s shifting moods and who is able to entertain and enthral by turns.

© Agathe Poupeney/Opéra National de Paris
© Agathe Poupeney/Opéra National de Paris
Director Zabou Breitman and designer Jean-Marc Stehlé set the opera in the era of 1920s silent film: from the beginning of the overture, we see projections and speech panels which place us firmly in that time and that aesthetic. Just as Mozart’s music isn’t genuinely Turkish but a Western imagining of Turkish music, Breitman and Stehlé’s setting is a Turkish harem as it might have been imagined in Rudolf Valentino's The Sheik. And the staging is executed with glamour, panache and an all-seeing eye for detail. The frame of Selim’s palace, bedecked with trees and climbing plants, is a thing of beauty. Its setting in front of the sea and the galley from which Selim disembarks are beautifully made. The belly dancers execute genuine belly dancing camels and figure-of-eights – true exoticism rather than pornography. The daily life of the harem – the old man smoking a shisha, the gossiping washerwomen, the musicians playing cards – is lovingly depicted. The costumes are sumptuous. And there’s a barrage of visual gags, far too many to list and several of them involving conductor and orchestra, but suffice to say that they were inventive and thoroughly entertaining. 

Starting from child stardom in the well-loved 1960s TV series Thierry la Fronde, Breitman has had a glittering career as stage and film actress, more recently turning to directing both film and theatre. But I've scoured her biography and I can’t see any previous opera. If that’s correct, her achievement is even more extraordinary. Either way, I'm looking forward to seeing more of her work.

The Paris Opera orchestra, conducted by Philippe Jordan, gave us precisely what’s needed for the full Mozart transcendence effect: lightness of touch, smoothness of phrasing, subtle variation in pace and dynamics. Their performance was also spot on technically: excellent togetherness, impeccable intonation. This was a near-flawless orchestral performance.

© Agathe Poupeney/Opéra National de Paris
© Agathe Poupeney/Opéra National de Paris
Mozart must have had some amazing singers available to him, because all five main roles in Die Entführung aus dem Serail are fiendishly difficult. Erin Morley sang a pure-toned and delicate Konstanze, slightly unconfident in the earliest coloratura, but improving as the opera went on until she had the audience eating out of her hand by time of her high-emotion arias in Act II. Bernard RIchter, as Belmonte, gave us beautiful warmth and openness of timbre, and negotiated Mozart’s difficult phrasing well, albeit sometimes losing legato into sequences of rather clipped syllables. Paul Schweinester provided good support and fine comic acting as his servant Pedrillo, while Lars Woldt gave us an Osmin to enjoy, with a big bass voice that was especially full and gorgeous at the the middle and top of his range. Woldt’s flaw was at the low end: Osmin’s part requires frequent stretches down to low D (well below the usual bass range), and Woldt lacked confidence in hitting the very lowest notes. Jürgen Maurer delivered a solid performance in the non-singing role of Selim.

But the show was stolen by Anna Prohaska as Blonde, Konstanze’s English companion. Prohaska brilliantly protrayed Blonde’s no-nonsense feistiness, and moved wonderfully both in the course of acting and when called upon to dance. All the while, her voice was rock solid, always sweet-sounding and never wavering on some dizzying high notes and runs. While her four co-stars all sang very creditably, Prohaska’s was a performance to remember.

Die Entführung aus dem Serail hasn’t previously been on my list of Mozart favourites: the plot is wafer thin, it's difficult to sing and the semi-comic, semi-serious nature can sit uncomfortably. But this production has turned it into a firm favourite: this was an utterly magical afternoon of opera that has left me on a giant high and singing the melodies in my head. If you live in Paris or within reach, don’t miss it.