La Scala marks the 20th anniversary of the death of Giorgio Strehler with a run of his classic production of Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail. The opening night was attended by many of the director's former associates, and was an event infused with nostalgia. Strehler was, after all, instrumental in shaping Milan's cultural landscape, not least for co-founding the city's Piccolo Teatro in 1947 – Italy's first permanent theatre – whose original mandate was to offer shows founded on “radically different” theoretical principles at affordable prices.

<i>Die Entführung aus dem Serail</i> © Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala
Die Entführung aus dem Serail
© Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

That Zubin Mehta conducts this production (reprised by Mattia Testi) is apt. It was he that, at the age of 29, led the production's first outing at the 1965 Salzburg Festival. La Scala's incumbent superintendent Alexander Pereira was also there (then aged 18) and recalls the audience rising to its feet and reluctant to leave the theatre. You can see why. Mozart's Singspiel, which recounts the attempts of Spanish adventurers Belmonte and Pedrillo to wrest their lovers Konstanze and Blonde from the clutches of the Turkish Pasha Selim, blends the comic and the sentimental with music of supreme grace. It is these elements that Strehler's production emulates with sophistication and rare simplicity.

A Baroque play within a play is demarcated with moveable wings flanked by an onstage proscenium. The backdrop consists in a dazzling bichrome skyscape, gradated from lower white to upper blue, across which the silhouette of a ship periodically glides. The prevailing atmosphere is one of dreaminess, and Strehler's whimsical interjections are moments of brilliant fun. When strained lackeys finally succeed in carrying away a sedan containing the apparently sleeping Osmin, whom Pedrillo has plied with drugged wine, we see the corpulent overseer has already alighted before he sneaks off in the opposite direction.

Production image © Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala
Production image
© Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Not a single gesture or piece of blocking feels arbitrary in this cerebral yet lighthearted production. Each of the character's movements feels married to some specific dramatic or aesthetic intention. An unilluminated strip fronts an otherwise evenly-lit stage, and Strehler's chief device is to have characters move from the light during their recitative into darkness during their arias, at which point we perceive them as silhouettes. Here, the particular web of gesticulations adopted by each singer takes on deeper expressivity. We sense the director engaging in a theatrical experiment whose object is the communicative potential of the human form.

Tobias Kehrer (Osmin) and Sabine Devieilhe (Blondchen) © Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala
Tobias Kehrer (Osmin) and Sabine Devieilhe (Blondchen)
© Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Mehta brings a great deal of class to most things he conducts at La Scala, and here his bright account of Mozart's score was a joy. The bass drum, cymbal and triangle-spangled "Janissary" percussion emanated in sherbet puffs, while the lyrical numbers unfurled with poise. There is nothing forced or fussy in the veteran conductor's approach – he simply lets the orchestra's golden sound flow unimpeded, paying careful attention to dynamics and keeping things spry by coaxing little details with twinkling fingers.

Lenneke Ruiten (Konstanze) and Mauro Peter (Belmonte) © Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala
Lenneke Ruiten (Konstanze) and Mauro Peter (Belmonte)
© Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Bass Tobias Kehrer was having a bad night vocally as Osmin. While his lower notes rolled out effortlessly anything above the stave rasped. But Kehrer soldiered on and made amends with a highly comic embodiment of the role, in which Osmin was rendered a gentle giant (albeit one quick to issue death sentences) who waddled in a baggy sirwal with improbable elegance. Cornelius Obonya in the spoken part of Pasha Selim underpinned flashes of rage with veiled benevolence. His eventual release of the Belmonte was more credible as a result, and his unrequited love for Kostanze all the more tragic.

Dutch soprano Lenneke Ruiten impressed in the challenging role of Konstanze. Her aria “Martern aller Arten” was a performance highlight delivered in shapely streams of coloratura and a finely-focussed upper register. Ruiten also raised laughs, such as when from her window she proceeded to deposit a succession of suitcases into the arms of her time-pressed rescuer Belmonte. Sabine Devieilhe as Blonde if anything sounded even more heavenly. Hers is a supple, featherweight voice capable of thinning to the finest of threads even on the role's most stratospheric notes.

Mauro Peter was a revelation as Belmonte. The tenor's powerful voice is open from top to bottom and reminds one of Fritz Wunderlich particularly for its unbroken legato pegged with crystal clear consonants, as well as its honeyed sound rich in lower harmonics. Maximilian Schmitt was a sunny Pedrillo, his “Frisch zum Kampfe” appropriately heroic. All in all, Strehler's classic production was made to gleam anew. His essential conception feels groundbreaking to this day.