Q: When is an opera not an opera?
A: When it attempts to combine Broadway and Hollywood and succeeds at neither.
Many audience members at Friday night’s New Orleans Opera Association performance of Mozart’s “The Abduction from the Seraglio” (being reprised on Sunday afternoon) had to be, at the very least, disappointed in this “re-imagining” of a classic that hasn’t been performed in New Orleans in a generation.
The last time the opera was staged by the local company was in 1982, when it was presented in its original milieu: the 16th-century Ottoman Empire. The current production, reworked from the original by director Alison Moritz, is set in a 1930s nightclub and immediately comes across as anachronistic and contrived.
The original 1782 libretto follows the plight of two beautiful women and a servant captured by pirates and sold to a wealthy pasha who adds the women to his harem, or seraglio. The fiancé of one of the women sneaks in and attempts to rescue them, only to be caught and threatened with beheading before he is mercifully spared and freed by the unexpectedly magnanimous sultan.
The plotline of the current production follows basically the same lines but is reset in a 1930s Hollywood-like cabaret setting.
This major alteration might have worked fine if “Abduction” was being presented as a contemporary Broadway-style or Hollywood production, with possibly a new title and the original German language translated into English.
But this isn’t something that can be done with every opera. The Met’s recent restaging of Verdi’s “Rigoletto” in a 1960s Las Vegas casino earned some plaudits but also some not-so-favorable reviews.
Colorful costumes and authentic-looking sets are as much a part of the opera-going experience as the singing and the music. However, New Orleans audiences are being denied half of that experience by not seeing the production in its original Turkish milieu.
Additionally, extensive and often downright inane passages of spoken dialogue in English made for uncomfortable breaks in the singing. While the original work also had spoken dialogue, one had to wonder why someone, somewhere along the way, couldn’t have transformed at least some of it into recitatives with musical accompaniment.
All of this being said, the production was, at least, entertaining from a showbiz perspective. If that was its main intent, it was successful, judging by the laughter it elicited from the audience. First-timers to “Abduction,” with no basis of comparison to the original, appeared to be pleased with what they were seeing and hearing.
The major arias and duets were well sung by the principals, especially the romantic leads, soprano Heather Phillips (Constanza) and tenor Joshua Dennis (Belmonte), and Mozart’s score was beautifully played and well conducted by Robert Lyall.
Among the supporting cast, Timothy Bruno as the traditional bass “bad guy” was a standout both vocally and as a character actor in his role of Osmin, the vindictive nightclub manager. As Blondchen, soprano Katrina Galka was a giddy, lovable Betty Boop-type flapper.
Tenor Matthew Grills as Pedrillo, the hapless servant captured and held hostage with the two women, also sang well, but his overacting often gave way to a slapstick-like silliness that was embarrassing to watch. Kenneth Weber’s speaking-only role as the club owner, Pasha Selim, was a waste of an otherwise stellar voice.
The sets by the opera association’s scenic studio staff fit well into the intended era, although the bland exterior of the club with its peeling posters stood out in stark contrast to the lavish interior and dressing room.
Overall, if restaging an opera in a contemporary mode is intended to attract newer and younger audiences, it doesn’t appear to be working so far. The vast number of empty seats in the house Friday night bore testimony to that. Hopefully, things will get brighter for the art form in the near future.
"The Abduction from the Seraglio"
WHAT: An opera in three acts by Mozart presented by the New Orleans Opera Association
WHEN: 2:30 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts, 1419 Basin St. (Louis Armstrong Park), New Orleans
TICKETS: $30-$230. Pre-performance Sunday brunch in two seatings, $30 per person extra. Reservations required.
INFO: (504) 529-3000. neworleansopera.org