The Abduction from the Seraglio: Mozart’s Ambitious Declaration of Independence

A scene from James Robinson's "Orient Express" production of The Abduction from the Seraglio; Photo: George Hixson / Houston Grand Opera

A scene from James Robinson’s “Orient Express” production of The Abduction from the Seraglio; Photo: George Hixson / Houston Grand Opera

With The Abduction from the Seraglio, Mozart scored the biggest stage success he would enjoy during his lifetime. It premiered in Vienna on July 16, 1782, and, by the fourth performance—according to Mozart himself—the show was “creating such a sensation that they don’t want to see or hear anything else, and the theater is packed full each time.”

Nowadays Abduction ranks among the less frequently encountered of Mozart’s mature stage works. One reason might be that it suffers from what director James Robinson calls “ugly-title syndrome.” Catchy titles, to be sure, can go a long way toward securing recognition for even second-rate works. Robinson adds: “Abduction is underrated in many ways. It’s one of the most unabashedly romantic pieces that Mozart ever wrote. The way he addresses relationships and longing, as well as all the things that accompany love and its potential loss, is so heartfelt. Abduction wears its emotions on its sleeve. And it’s also a wonderfully funny piece.”

The stakes for the success of Abduction were high.

When Mozart started working on his new project in the summer of 1781, he was right in the middle of a period of profound transition—personally as well as professionally. The year had started with the premiere, in Munich, of Idomeneo, an ambitious opera that represented a major artistic leap forward for the composer. A few months after that came a dramatic confrontation with his boss, Count Hieronymus Colloredo, the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg. Among the many reasons Mozart felt so miserable at Colloredo’s provincial court was the lack of opportunities to write opera, the art form he loved most of all.

Colloredo had temporarily taken up residence in Vienna, where he summoned Mozart to rejoin his staff after Idomeneo. Long resentful for being treated like a servant, Mozart’s feelings of humiliation intensified in Vienna, and the animus between them reached a boiling point. Mozart said the things we all long to say to a detested employer when we realize certain bridges are simply better burned. In May he ditched his secure but stifling post and, in a burst of euphoria, determined to stay on as a freelance artist in Vienna and fend for himself.

It really was Mozart in the jungle—the 25-year-old Wolfgang facing the competition and intrigue of the professional music world in the Habsburg capital—and so it would remain, through up-and-down cycles, until his death a decade later.

Mozart hoped for an imminent royal appointment but in the meantime resorted to giving private lessons and presenting his own concerts to generate income. Mozart attempted to reassure his anxious father, Leopold: “It seems as if good fortune is waiting to embrace me here.” Leopold argued for making up with the archbishop; aside from paternal worry about the loss of a secure job, he knew Wolfgang’s rebellion was also an act of liberation from his own control. Along with his artistic declaration of independence, Mozart married his girlfriend, Constanze, against his father’s wishes just weeks after Abduction’s premiere.

There was reason for the son’s optimism. New friendships within Vienna’s lively milieu of performing artists stimulated the composer’s imagination, and a contact he had made during an earlier trip to Vienna was eager to help him. This was Johann Gottlieb Stephanie, a theatrical factotum with a somewhat dodgy reputation (though he treated Mozart well) who was director of the National Singspiel, a company that performed in Vienna’s prestigious Burgtheater. The National Singspiel had been established in 1778 by Emperor Joseph II to nurture the development of a national style of opera in the German language. (The default model had been opera sung in Italian.) Stephanie was a sort of dramaturge, sifting through and preparing—as well as writing—librettos for Viennese composers that would further the identity of the company as a proponent of German Singspiel (literally, “sing-play”). Stephanie secured Mozart a fresh opera commission there. The resulting production would naturally be on the emperor’s radar.

Serious Italian opera was characterized by its division into arias/ensembles and recitative and by its devotion to themes of mythology or heroic history. (Idomeneo was planted in this realm.) Singspiel, in contrast, tended to be comic in tone, with romantic or supernatural leanings as well; it used spoken dialogue to further the action between sung numbers—not unlike the Broadway musical comedy.

The Magic Flute would become Mozart’s most famous Singspiel, but he had experimented with the genre in an earlier project titled Zaide, which he put aside to take up the commission for Idomeneo. Zaide remained an unfinished but substantial torso—in large part because, with Abduction, Stephanie furnished the composer with a stronger libretto, one far better-suited not only to Viennese audiences but, on account of its comic flair, to the Singspiel genre.

Stephanie in turn had simply availed himself of a libretto previously written by Christoph Friedrich Bretzner (no copyright laws back then). The plan was to throw together a cheerful entertainment for the upcoming diplomatic visit to Vienna by the Grand Duke of Russia, which would further enhance Mozart’s status. He pressed ahead at feverish speed on the first act in the summer of 1781. But the Russians postponed their visit, and a different program of tragic operas by Gluck was eventually substituted to furnish a more elevated tone. Abduction’s premiere was pushed to the following spring, so Mozart suddenly found himself with ample time to rethink his approach to the material.

A scene from James Robinson's "Orient Express" production of The Abduction from the Seraglio; Photo: George Hixson / Houston Grand Opera

A scene from James Robinson’s “Orient Express” production of The Abduction from the Seraglio; Photo: George Hixson / Houston Grand Opera

Abduction benefited from this lengthy genesis—a longer span of time than Mozart lavished on any of his other operas.

Mozart requested sweeping changes in Stephanie’s libretto; the original, simpler concept grew richer and more elaborate. He integrated the musical and dramatic components more closely (for example, in the continuous sequence that sets the plot in motion in the opening scene). He used key ensembles later in the opera (the quartet at the end of act two above all) to explore deeper emotional currents.

The opera’s setup of two pairs of lovers affords a typical comedic contrast between “high” (Konstanze, Belmonte) and “low” (Blonde, Pedrillo) style, corresponding with the respective social stations of the characters. But the radiant beauty of Mozart’s ensemble of reconciliation adds another dimension.

Zaide had treated a similar narrative of a Western woman held captive by a jealous Turkish pasha: such topics became popular across the arts in Europe in the 18th century, resulting in depictions of the Ottoman Empire onto which Western artists and audiences projected anxieties about the Muslim world.

A scene from James Robinson's "Orient Express" production of The Abduction from the Seraglio; Photo: George Hixson / Houston Grand Opera

A scene from James Robinson’s “Orient Express” production of The Abduction from the Seraglio; Photo: George Hixson / Houston Grand Opera

James Robinson sees Abduction as “a classic piece about two cultures that have no idea about how to talk to each other even though they actually share similar things.”

His staging, which has traveled the world since it was introduced in Houston in 2001, is set during the 1920s, just after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, which adds a layer to the issue of Selim’s identity: “The Pasha is very conflicted and seems to have a foot in both worlds.”

“The naive quality of the story reminded me of comedies like Bringing Up Baby and Busby Berkeley movies from the 1930s,” Robinson explains. “We wanted it to feel like everyone is thrown together in a way that forces them to deal with each other.” That became the impetus for the metaphor of the train in motion, the Orient Express journeying between the two worlds.

To be sure, Mozart draws on musical clichés of his era: the brightly aggressive sonorities we hear at the outset in the overture—the combination of piccolo, cymbals, triangle and bass drum—are 18th-century Western musical code for “Turkish music” (associated with the Ottoman military). Mozart also uses this as a unifying device to stitch together the almost bewildering variety of styles he incorporates into the score.

While the angry Osmin is rooted in another stereotype (of the “barbaric” Turk), Mozart’s musical depiction—requiring extreme agility, range and stage charisma—makes for one of the composer’s most challenging and vividly characterized roles. Indeed, Mozart fully exploited the potential of the first-rate cast he had at his disposal for the premiere, clearly using their individual gifts to develop unique musical personalities for each of his characters.

Robinson believes Mozart uses the plot’s setup to dramatize the comedy of “two cultures that are not understanding each other.

It’s not about the Westerners being right and the Turks as barbarians.” He points to the comic difference in the behavior of the genders as well. “Pedrillo and Belmonte are the two men who keep putting their feet in their mouths. It’s a potent comedic ploy we can still see all the time in theater and film. It is actually the benevolence of the Pasha who represents wisdom and tolerance and clemency. He’s an observer of things.”

In Bretzner’s source material, Belmonte is revealed to be the Pasha’s son, making Selim’s pardon a predictable reaction. Mozart wanted a twist: Belmonte is the son of Selim’s worst enemy, the man on whose account he had to abandon his Western identity and convert to a new life in Turkey. But Selim opts to repress his instinctive desire for revenge and not to follow the pattern of barbaric behavior expected of him—and that would doubtless have been his enemy’s choice.

Similarly, Mozart repeatedly overruns the expectations of cliché in his material by enriching his treatment of the characters with engaging musical choices. Already in this first large-scale effort for the Vienna stage, he draws on a spectrum of emotions that is almost Shakespearean in its colorful variety.

A writer, critic, educator and translator, Thomas May writes for leading arts organizations around the world. His arts blog is at www.memeteria.com.

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