On hearing Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Emperor Joseph II was said to have famously commented “An enormous number of notes, dear Mozart.” But for some in today’s audience at the Wiener Staatsoper, it was the words spoken that proved too cumbersome.

Christian Natter and Daniel Behle (Belmonte), Michael Laurenz and Ludwig Blochberger (Pedrillo)
© Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper GmbH

Hans Neuenfels solution? A version shaking up the stodgy talk with dialogue that entertains instead of intrudes. And to make it work even better, the roles are divided into not one but two Konstanzes, Blondes, Belmontes, Pedrillos and Osmins. The director goes out on a limb, no doubt, but his double casting with actors and singers is a well taken risk, breathing new life into Neuenfels' 1998 production from Stuttgart, now being seen for the first time at the Staatsoper.

The initial irritation of seeing double was quickly replaced by appreciation of a wrinkle that added to the action and drama of the relatively static original – and coaxed laughter from the audience at unexpected moments. Thus, faced with the prospect of torture and worse for refusing the advances of Bassa Selim, a distraught Konstanze, the actress, urges her vocalist double: “Sing, Konstanze sing!” to take her mind off the travails awaiting her. On a larger scale, the device allows a deeper look into the hearts and minds of the characters, with the joy or pain of the soloists reflected not only in their singing, but in their doubles’ actions as well.

Christian Nickel (Bassa Selim) and Lisette Oropesa (Konstanze)
© Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper GmbH

All of this did not free the singers from the need for dramatic expression, however, and Lisette Oropesa shone both in voice and action as Konstanze in her Staatsoper debut. Demonstrating ownership of the role from the start, she moved through the contrasting lyric and coloratura sections of “Ach ich liebte” with aplomb, soaring to the repeated top Ds with ease. Emanuela von Frankenberg did a credible job as her declamatory alter ego. Yet even without her, Oropesa’s acting skills would have sufficed to give contour to the role as the kidnapped damsel held by the despot Bassa Selim.

Enter Daniel Behle as her fiancée Belmonte, who has come to rescue her. His almost fearful expectation of seeing Konstanze again after all this time was poignantly expressed in his lyric rendition of “O wie ängstlich”  and here, as in other musically intricate arias, his diction was superb. The soubrette role of Blonde, Konstanze’s servant, was well served by Regula Mühlemann. Michael Laurenz was a good Pedrillo, Belmonte's servant, while both in girth and bass voice, Goran Jurić was an imposing Osmin, Selim’s overseer who – when not lusting after Blonde – threatens the worst of tortures for the others. Chapeau for their actor alter egos as well.

Goran Jurić (Osmin) and Michael Laurenz (Pedrillo)
© Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper GmbH

And Bassa Selim? In the opera’s sole non-singing role, Christian Nickel had no need for a double, raging admirably solo at Konstanze for not yielding one minute, showing tender understanding for her the next. Also good: the Janissary choir and the playful if somewhat morbid reference to Die Zauberflöte, another Mozart Singspiel: Blonde and Pedrillo suddenly appear in Papageno and Papagena’s feathered garb and Blonde lays an egg and a clutch of chicks – children in yellow full body tights – crowd the stage before collapsing. It all turns out well in the end, of course, with the pasha letting his hostages go. But for the uninitiated, the insert comes at a point in the action where it still seems that the same fate of death awaits the two captive couples. 

Michael Laurenz and Ludwig Blochberger (Pedrillo) and Regula Mühlemann (Blonde)
© Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper GmbH

With Neuenfels smoothing over the bumps between song and dialogue and a strong performance by the principals, it was up to conductor Antonello Manacorda and the State Opera Orchestra to make the evening complete, and they did not disappoint. Their interpretation of the score’s varied passages was nuanced in turns, whether Allegro, Adagio or “alla turca”. But it was, above all, taut; a performance that matched Mozart's pithy response to the emperor: “Just as many notes… as are necessary.”