English Touring Opera does its work without fuss, preferring designers and directors who offer expressive immediacy and dramatic economy. Here Die Entführung aus dem Serail became simplyThe Seraglio, making the work less about the ‘abduction’ or rescue driving the plot but rather about the possibilities of the setting: a prism reflecting back questions of power, desire and control.

<i>Seraglio</i> © Jane Hobson
Seraglio
© Jane Hobson

This may make the production sound a rather cerebral affair, but the lightness of the comedy meant that these insights were offered obliquely. Graphic lighting from David Kidd read the emotional temperature clearly, complemented by Adam Wiltshire’s sets. The literal gilded cages imprisoning Konstanze and Blonde suggest both luxury and degradation, whilst the mirrors inside them glinting back towards the audience remind us that this work, for all the pantomime fun, is about the complexity of our self-image and those of the stereotypes we indulge, as well as our capacities (or otherwise) for reflection and introspection.

As a touring company, flexibility and economy are ETO’s watchwords. But they are also key parts of this show’s expressive formula. The orchestra featured just 12 strings and John Andrews’ witty, unsentimental conducting scampered without rushing, favouring bright, unfussy textures, and summoning tart contributions from the woodwinds. Chorus commitments got lithe handling from just four of the ETO company buttressing the principals, which stopped the show getting bogged down in unwieldy dramatic tableaus. Andrew Porter’s translation is crisp enough, though not without a couple of clangers (you could see the rhyme of ‘master builder’ and ‘masturbator’ coming a mile off), and its flat-footed expository passages left the cast overexposed.

Matthew Stiff (Osmin) and John-Colyn Gyeantey (Belmonte) © Jane Hobson
Matthew Stiff (Osmin) and John-Colyn Gyeantey (Belmonte)
© Jane Hobson

Because he gets some of the smartest music, it’s easy for this to become Osmin’s show, and the characterisation was brilliantly conceived by director Stephen Medcalf. Osmin is an irritable, sadistic administrator, busying himself with paperwork and fed up with the mess Pedrillo makes in his office; the latter, kept by the Pasha as a gardener, plans his landscaping with surveying instrument and tape measure whilst Osmin sings about how much he hates him, finally ripping up Pedrillo’s bundles of charts in exasperation. Their stage business was powerfully directed, always funny, and gave their power struggle density and richness.

This presentation made them each other’s doubles in the bureaucratic machinery of imperial administration, whether European or Ottoman. It was one of many moments in the production laying bare the paradoxes of power and control, especially underlined in a dazzling stage picture at the climax of the Act 3 quartet, where apparent rescuers Pedrillo and Belmonte supplicate themselves before Konstanze and Blonde, still in golden cages, both exalted and confined.

Matthew Stiff’s Osmin was anything but. His opening number showcased pillowy lyricism and miraculous textual clarity, and the flexible colours of his voice gave definition and shade to a character who is often a mere brute. His rowdier, showier moments were spiked with bite and menace, the fearsome bottom D in his Act 3 aria did not disappoint. Stiff’s partnership with Richard Pinkstone’s Pedrillo was a highlight, shot through with sparkle and fun: their “Vivat Bacchus” was a real riot. Much comedy was wrought from their reluctant office-sharing, with intimations of The Odd Couple. Pinkstone himself was in bright voice, perhaps pushing a little hard in his second-act aria, and brought pantomime energy to both spoken and sung sequences, along with a sweet vulnerability. He would make a fine Belmonte himself.

Alexander Andreou (Pasha) and Lucy Hall (Konstanze) © Jane Hobson
Alexander Andreou (Pasha) and Lucy Hall (Konstanze)
© Jane Hobson

Alexander Andreou’s Pasha offset that pair’s lightness with commanding, brooding menace. His Pasha was capable of the tenderness and dignity that underscore the morals of the story, even as he made the nastier moments hair-raising indeed. John-Colyn Gyeantey’s Belmonte, his rival, has a tight and focused sound, which brings a surprising dramatic intensity to his characterisation and turns up the emotional temperature. His coloratura didn’t always sparkle, but seemed a reasonable enough trade off for a fiercely impassioned stage presence.

Nazan Fikret’s Blonde was another powerful piece of characterisation, salacious and wily, with a voice in full gleam. Strong acting and movement again followed musical excellence: the torturous ‘massage’ she gives Osmin whilst singing of women’s capacity to manipulate men was full of risqué mischief. Lucy Hall’s Konstanze sparkled in her interactions with the Pasha, and sailed through the dizzying virtuosity of “Martern aller Arten” with glittering coloratura and untiring top notes. Pity and pathos, but plenty of independence too: a smart characterisation in a really sophisticated show.

****1