A gem of an opera

West Bay Opera debuts Mozart's first comic operatic masterpiece

"Die Entführung aus dem Serail" may be an incomprehensible mouthful for non-German speakers -- not that its translation, "The Abduction from the Seraglio," tells you a lot more. Stories of escapes from the harems of Muslim pashas have been told since the Crusades first pitted the Christian West against the mysterious Near East.

In the creative hands of Palo Alto's West Bay Opera, this rarely performed forerunner of all of Mozart's greatest theatrical works proves to be a little gem of an opera. It isn't in the grand opera tradition, but its arrival on the Vienna scene in 1782 changed the world of opera forever.

The first of many surprises is the fact that a "singspiel" (German dialogue interspersed with music and song) can keep an audience's rapt attention for more than three hours. That is a tribute to Mozart's magic in using the orchestra to advance the story with charm, depth of feeling and wit. The WBO pit orchestra and its unseen but vital percussion section (working from monitors in the basement) is a genuine Turkish delight, performing with great endurance -- and at times some manic speed.

Another surprise is the way this low-budget company working on a tiny stage can attract a truly outstanding cast of singers. Perhaps part of the reason "Abduction" is not often mounted is the need for five superb vocalists plus the elegant but non-singing Pasha Selim.

The story is simple and straight-forward. Belmonte, son of a Spanish nobleman, sails to Turkey to rescue his beloved betrothed, Konstanze, from the pasha's harem (she and her English servant, Blonde, have been captured and sold by pirates, along with Belmonte's valet, Pedrillo). Only one problem: The pasha has given Blonde to the fiercely protective Osmin, his chief enforcer who is also a talented comic. Belmonte passes himself off as a "baumeister" (or architect) to gain admittance to the palace. His plan to escape back to the West is foiled at the last minute, and the two couples are seized and threatened with death. The pasha then learns that Belmonte's father is the same man who was the cause of his ruin leading to his conversion to Islam. Rather than be brutal in return, Pasha Selim grants their freedom to return home in order to show his humane wisdom and compassion. His wise and generous decision is hailed by all (except a disgruntled Osmin) in a joyous finale.

West Bay Opera's truly stellar cast includes Kevin Thompson as Osmin. Thompson is a former Adler fellow of San Francisco Opera with the physique of an NBA ballplayer and a powerful bass voice. He towers over the insouciant Blonde, sung by high soprano Chelsea Hollow. Belmonte is sung by tenor Michael Desnoyers; his love, Konstanze, is coloratura soprano Nikki Einfeld, a former member of the Merola Opera Program. Tenor Tapan Bhat sings Pedrillo, while Pasha Selim is portrayed by Eugene Brancoveanu who also directed the production.

An outstanding baritone, Brancoveanu is making his debut as a director. He proved an outstanding Papageno in West Bay's "Magic Flute" last year.

WBO general director Jose Luis Moscovich chose to present "Abduction" in part because of its challenging but luminous score. He evidently didn't agree with Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II that the opera had "too many notes." Citing the opera's "crash course in early multi-culturalism," Moscovich noted the proximity of the Ottoman empire to Austria: In Mozart's time, it was a very threatening presence on the Austrian borders.

"The Abduction from the Seraglio" is full of hints of the composer's future great works. In the opera's great showpiece, "Martern aller Arten" ("Tortures of All Kinds"), Konstanze sings in no uncertain terms that she will endure any pain or torture rather than give up her love for Belmonte or succumb to the pasha's advances. The nine-minute aria has a long introduction of solos by flute, oboe, violin and cello. Einfeld's acrobatic coloratura runs are dazzling.

The work has a dozen show-stopping musical highlights, each winning enthusiastic applause. The finale of each act is particularly resounding, as is the concluding ensemble with chorus and all the principals.

The creative team includes many veterans of WBO: Jean-François Revon's sets are evocative of 18th-century Turkey, projections by Frédéric O. Boulay augment the staging, Edward Hunter's lighting design gives an exotic atmosphere and Callie Floor's costumes are convincing. Bruce Olstad's chorus has little singing except in the finale but is omnipresent throughout.

Mozart's innovations are everywhere in the opera. For the first time, the singspiel has the humorous aspect of the Italian "buffa" operas; it has romantic love interests and recognizably sympathetic characters. It effectively uses the tuneful music and offers a clear and happy moral resolution.

Goethe, who wrote a number of singspiele, said the "Abduction" turned the world of German opera upside down. Only the genius of Mozart was able to express the extremes of life, affirmation, despair, sensual pleasure and bleak emptiness all in brief but highly effective musical phrases.

All in all, WBO's "The Abduction from the Seraglio" is a most satisfying performance of musical theater.

What: Mozart's "Die Entführung aus dem Serail" ("Abduction from the Seraglio"), in German with English supertitles.

Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto

When: Saturday, Feb. 21, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Feb. 22, at 2 p.m.

Cost: $40-$75

Info: Go to westbayopera.org or call 650-424-9999.

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