“Too many notes, Herr Mozart,” was Emperor Joseph II’s response to the composer’s new Singspiel Die Entführung aus dem Serail. I feared “Too many words, Sir David,” would be my response on learning that the predicted running time for Glyndebourne’s new production by David McVicar had been extended some 30 minutes beyond previously advertised. Yet, to paraphrase Mozart’s response, there are just as many words as necessary, particularly to give Pasha Selim a more rounded portrait than usual in a splendiferous production, frequently witty but carrying a strong moral message.

<i>Die Entführung aus dem Serail</i> © Richard Hubert Smith
Die Entführung aus dem Serail
© Richard Hubert Smith

Once again, a production is fashionably updated to the time of composition, here moving the action from 17th century Turkey to the late 18th century, when Viennese fascination with the Orient was at its peak. Vicki Mortimer’s picturesque designs place us firmly in the Middle East right from the map, annotated in Arabic, which acts as the drop cloth. The glistening sea and a travelling bazaar, all fezzes and carpets, that greet Belmonte immediately reference McVicar’s spectacular Glyndebourne Giulio Cesare. From there, the production is a sequence of imposing doorways, sliding panels and latticework that keep the action fluid. Mortimer references portraits of European debutantes dressed à la Turque, dressing Blonde (and later Konstanze) in Ottoman garb. Paule Constable’s painterly lighting balances sultry heat and murky shadows.

Franck Saurel (Pasha Selim) and Sally Matthews (Konstanze) © Richard Hubert Smith
Franck Saurel (Pasha Selim) and Sally Matthews (Konstanze)
© Richard Hubert Smith
McVicar’s update allows Franck Saurel’s Pasha Selim to be presented as a man of the Enlightenment. Introduced in a long scene, to the off-stage strains of Mozart’s Gran Partita, his nobility and generosity are immediately established. We see Konstanze’s conflicted position; resolute in her faithfulness to Belmonte, yet clearly attracted to the Pasha. Saurel’s acting is so impressive that he becomes the centrepiece of the whole opera, even though he doesn’t sing a note, completely justifying the welter of dialogue McVicar retains. During Konstanze’s great aria “Martern aller Arten”, where she scorns the tortures that doubtless await her for refusing to yield to Selim, it is the Pasha who is being tortured, contorted and tormented by her rejection.

Young German bass Tobias Kehrer was the pick of the fine cast as Osmin, irascible overseer of the Pasha’s palace. He delighted in sabotaging gardener Pedrillo’s topiary, his bickering with Blonde descended into an hilariously choreographed food fight and his Bacchus duet with Pedrillo ended in a gleeful tummy slide along the long cellar table. Vocally, he was no joke – Kehrer’s rock-solid basso profundo impressed from the start. Osmin’s showpiece aria “Ha! wie will ich triumphieren”, as the abduction of Konstanze and Blonde from the harem is foiled, was properly a delight, lacking only a decent trill. He sealed the deal with an athletic cartwheel.

Tobias Kehrer (Osmin) and Brenden Gunnell (Pedrillo) © Richard Hubert Smith
Tobias Kehrer (Osmin) and Brenden Gunnell (Pedrillo)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Sally Matthews gave an assured performance as Konstanze, beautifully nuanced acting to match her creamy soprano, just occasionally sounding thin above the stave. Matthews spun lovely, controlled lines in her “Traurigkeit ward mir zum Lose”, while “Martern aller Arten” was properly resolute, with athletic coloratura. As the faithful lover racing to her rescue, Edgaras Montvidas’ fay handkerchief waving Belmonte didn’t always cut the most dashing figure. Montvidas doesn’t sound a typical Mozart tenor, with a good deal of sinew in the voice. There was a clotted quality to his lower register, while ornamentation could be effortful, but he presented his character amiably.

The two servants were an absolute delight. Brenden Gunnell, furiously puffing on his pipe, was the much put-upon Pedrillo, had an almost heroic tone and he and Kehrer had great fun in their sparring. Norwegian soprano Mari Eriksmoen was the spunky Blonde, squaring up to Osmin energetically, even if her bell-like intonation occasionally slipped as a result.

Tobias Kehrer (Osmin) and Edgaras Montvidas (Belmonte) © Richard Hubert Smith
Tobias Kehrer (Osmin) and Edgaras Montvidas (Belmonte)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Robin Ticciati and the ever-excellent Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment charmed in the Glyndebourne pit. The Janissary elements were bright and breezy – it’s always welcome to have a Turkish Crescent (or “Jingling Johnny”) wielded in anger. Woodwind solos in the introduction to “Martern aller Arten” were especially delightful, as were the gossamer pizzicatos in Pedrillo’s Act III serenade as he waits for Konstanze and Blonde to appear at their windows.

Does McVicar err on the side of caution in his presentation of Entführung, a work riddled with politically correct minefields? Possibly, but in presenting the opera ‘straight’ it focuses on human – rather than racial, political or gender – dilemmas and emerges as a strong, moral tale. In the end, the Muslim shows himself to be the better man, allowing the lovers to go free. Arguably, we knew that all along, but the final image of the much-loved Pasha, surrounded by his children, looking off towards the sea, is a tender one and ‘sells’ this opera in the best possible light.