How to stage The Abduction from the Seraglio in Vienna, a city not exactly known for its sensitivity towards its Turkish minority? Mozart’s opera doesn’t, it should be said, contain nearly as much politically incorrect embarrassment as the rhetoric of some of Austria’s modern-day political parties, but the abusive boor Osmin and the Western women enslaved by his short-fused ganglord are images which no self-respecting German director worth their conceptual salt is going to allow appear – at least unmediated – on an operatic stage.

August Zirner (Bassa Selim), Komparserie © Dimo Dimov / Volksoper Wien
August Zirner (Bassa Selim), Komparserie
© Dimo Dimov / Volksoper Wien

When performed as it was in the 2010 première run of this production, Helen Malkowsky’s take on the piece strips the opera of its contrived exoticism, redraws Osmin as a figure of basso buffo fun, and presents a sympathetic and tender Pasha Selim with whom the captive Konstanze has a fascination that can’t just be put down to Stockholm syndrome. A veritable psychodrama, taut as a wire until the very final Janissary chorus, is staged in the furtive looks exchanged between the pair – and also in a voicing of the spoken text, which, for depth of oral interpretation, would pass muster on one of Vienna’s principal theatrical stages.

Unfortunately, this cast did not repeat the thespian-grade acting performances of 2010. It doesn’t seem that Malkowsky was on hand to supervise this revival as all the nuance and tension of her direction is gone, leaving the Pasha as a mild-mannered lepidopterist (naturally more of a watcher than a collector), which makes little sense when we observe that Konstanze could walk out of his butterfly house any minute she wanted, but offers no self-rationalization for staying. Not untypically for repertory revivals, the one character who still comes across as obviously directed is the crudest, namely Osmin, whose falling down, sexual innuendos and other sub-Benny Hill antics quickly wear when left to carry the show.

While things hadn’t deteriorated quite as much musically, this was still a routine evening. Mirko Roschkowski (Belmonte) was a passable Mozart tenor and Gregory Frank (Osmin) has the resounding low notes which are so prominent in the big third-act aria, ‘Ha, wie will ich triumphieren’, but both lacked slickness of movement in their upper registers. Anja-Nina Bahrmann (Konstanze) produced rounded notes in the middle but got quite acidic and sharp higher up in her register, where her coloratura was effortful and her delivery not big on musical interest. Paul Schweinester has the makings of a fine Papageno, and as the Volksoper so conscientiously promotes its younger ensemble members we may well see him in this role in the not too distant future – but as Pedrillo in this production he was overstretched and I wondered if putting his still-developing tenor under this much strain is wise. For Blonde, Konstanze’s English maid, this production contrives a kooky figure with bird’s-nest hair who strikes a mock-haughty pose for the famous line ‘I am an Englishwoman, born into freedom’, though, like Gregory Frank, Elisabeth Schwarz overplayed the role. Vocally she sounded rather thin and with erratic pulse she was seldom together with the orchestra. The orchestra itself sounded anaemic and lackluster, with Gerrit Prießnitz’s fluid conducting and sharp gestures not producing much of a result in the phrasing or any of the score’s felicities. An extended cadence in Konstanze’s aria ‘Martern aller Artern’, decorated with chromatic notes, syncopation and unpredictable pacing, possesses Mozartian spirit in such abundance that it practically generates its own momentum, but here it sounded sluggish. The music of this opera, with its ‘very many notes’ (if Emperor Joseph II did indeed say that), can appear brash and callow even if the score is neither of those things. But, as is true of Mozart performance more generally, there is a balance to be found, which was absent throughout this evening.