Two Abductions from the Seraglio reviewed together.
MOZART: Die Entfuhrung aud dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio) (complete opera) – Thomas Quasthoff (Selim)/ Rolando Villazon (Belmonte)/ Diana Damrau (Konstanze)/ Anna Prohaska (Blonde)/ Paul Schweinester (Pedrillo)/ Franz-Josef Selig (Osmin)/ Vocalensemble Rastatt/ Chamber Orch. Europe/ Yannick Nezet-Seguin – DGG 479 4064 (2 CDs), 74:37, 64:25 [Distr. by Universal] *****:
MOZART: Die Entfuhrung aud dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio) (complete opera) – Cornelius Obonya (Selim)/ Maximilian Schmitt (Belmonte)/ Robin Johannsen (Konstanze)/ Mari Eriksmoon (Blonde)/ Julian Pregardien (Pedrillo)/ Dimitry Ivashchenko (Osmin)/ RIAS Kammerchor/ Academie fur Alte Musik Berlin/ Rene Jacobs – Harmonia mundi HMC 902214.15 (2 CDs), 160 minutes [Distr. by PIAS] ****1/2:
The Abduction from the Seraglio caused quite the stir at its premiere. Vienna of course, having had the honor of seeing the Turkish incursion stop nearly at its gates, had no idealized attitudes toward the Muslim world at the time, and with good reason. The 1683 Battle of Vienna was no picnic for anyone, and its conclusion ended an essentially 300-year struggle with the Ottomans. However, the succeeding Enlightenment attitude espoused by Mozart and many others brought a new wave of fashion and cultural accoutrements now that the threat was gone, and one cannot but marvel at the superficiality of the age in its adaptation of these things, not all that distant from the attitudes of our own.
This being a very German conflict in many ways—though other nations were involved—contributed to Mozart’s insistence that his newly-commissioned opera, inspired by the Emperor’s desire to create a German national opera, reflected tolerance and respect for the defeated culture as bolstering the German ideals of a humane society. Therefore, we get the Pasha Selim (a purely spoken role in this singspiel) as an icon of enlightened humanity as opposed to what Vienna had experienced in reality a hundred years earlier. But Mozart doesn’t stop there. In many ways this is the first rigorously modern opera, easily the most well-thought-out from musical and dramatic standpoints, with essential character development of a rather broad range, coupled with brilliant orchestral writing and effects, with solo music that that is startling in its demands on the singers.
So to have two brand new recordings drop in on us at one time is indeed an embarrassment of riches. And the contest is close, and I am hard pressed to pick one over the other. Neither is SACD, so we must exclude that criterion, but the sound in both is gorgeous and impactful. Stylistically they are not too far apart either; Jacobs of course uses period instruments as he always has, and his production finds a fitting place in the Harmonia mundi catalog, his Mozart never less than exciting, sometimes irritating, always considered. And fast—did I mention that? But unlike some others who speed for speed’s sake, Jacob’s always finds a reason for his well-judged tempos, even if his verbal explanations are often more convincing than what we actually hear. His cast members, rarely the first rank of the opera world—though many have gone on to that acclaim—are always fresh discoveries peppered with known names, and rarely less than outstanding. So is the case here, no complaints at all, and all wrapped in typically thorough and handsome HM production values. But he has “modernized” the spoken texts, and that will horrify some.
But even though the DGG is obviously glitterier in terms of its vocal presentation, an inspiration of Rolando Villazon’s infectious infatuation with Mozart’s music, in this case the more splendid cast really does yield better results than the Jacobs effort. Though Villazon may actually be the weak link here (and I am not convinced yet, as many disagree on the nature of his vocal acuity), I find the effort more harmonious in concept, the tempos chosen by conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin more judicious in temperament (though he is no slouch speed-wise), and the singing simply glorious, making for a first choice among previous releases as nearly all of them, even the classics, have problems of one kind or the other. There is no perfectly sung Seraglio in the catalog though there are a number of fantastic recordings. And though Yannick Nezet-Seguin’s representation is a throwback in several ways, which upsets some people (like the reviewer at The Guardian), must we never look back? If this is verboten then the period instrument crowd would still be stuck in the mud of doctrinaire boredom, which the Jacobs recording, and Jacobs in general, manifestly disproves.
Top of the line sound and superb efforts by both casts make this a difficult choice, so you can hardly lose either way.
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