Mozart’s Abduction From the Seraglio Reviewed
Hubbard Hall Opera Theatre at the Bennington Center for the Arts
by Steve Dahlin
Driving north through the lush greenery on a perfect June evening, albeit this time east into Vermont, the sounds of Mozart played in my mind as I anticipated hearing Abduction from the Seraglio sung by the Hubbard Hall Opera Theatre (HHOT). The company normally makes its home in Cambridge, New York, but is presenting this opera in Saratoga, New York and Bennington, Vermont.
Pulling into the big barnlike Bennington Center for the Arts, there was a rich bass voice wafting in the air, singing in German. It was coming from over the fence, and it sounded familiar, one that I had heard before. In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ve sung some opera myself. In fact the role of Osmin is an old friend. I sang it in a concert version several years ago, my only exposure to Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio. The mystery singer was Jeff Martin – who was warming up his instrument – and he is a college student. It was easy to be impressed with the fullness and maturity of his voice.
Turns out that I had been distracted and in the wrong parking lot, so I sought out the proper building – a small, intimate theater a bit more modern than Hubbard Hall and perhaps twice as large. It was still very intimate and comfortable.
There were surprises in this theatrical flavored production. For one thing, it was taken unexpectedly out of a posh 17th century harem and set into a rather rough modern day guerrilla encampment- a surprising clever fit. Then there was the musical reduction for piano tailored for an ensemble of six, a few various props and a simple set with one central piece- a graffitied canvas supported by two ladders. Simple, yet delightfully entertaining. And compact, with a running time of seventy minutes.
I found this new invention of Mozart worked well with only the major arias and ensemble pieces connected by brief dialogue spoken in English. The plot moved quickly and smoothly from scene to scene without any fluff. Maestro Kelly Crandell commanded the piano as if it were an orchestra. He will also be conducting HHOT’s The Magic Flute this August as the Opera offerings continue through the summer.
It would have been a treat just to hear these fine musicians perform only the music, but having it all woven together into a story just doubled the pleasure.
Setting the scene for Abduction was a tender aria delivered by Victor Khodadad. His character Belmonte appeared to have just stumbled upon the rebel encampment via a crumpled map picked up at the local tourist shop. He was in this strange place on a mission – to rescue his Konstanze who had been kidnapped from a pleasure cruise, another twist to the story. Sde and her friends were now prisoners in the revolutionaries encampment. Debonair but no swashbuckler, Mr. Khodadad’s light tenor suited his interpretation of the character.
Arriving on the scene, fresh from his parking lot warm-up, was the young Jeff Martin in full jungle military gear playing the imposing but easily confused Osmin, headphones cranked and plastering up a poster of the new rebel leader- crooked. Osmin is the bumbling head guard on duty and he has been smitten in his own way with one of his prisoners – Blonde (Abigail Seaman).
Problem is, she makes a bad prisoner since Blonde, who is determined to make the most of a bad situation, is still on vacation as far as she is concerned. Besides, she has a boyfriend, Pedrillo, who was lucky enough to be kidnapped along with her. A highlight of the evening was Ms. Seaman’s deviously coquettish aria which showcased her agile voice and easy comedic timing.
Who knew that Mozart had written music so perfectly suited to applying sunscreen? Or, as it turns out for poor Osmin, not knowing how to apply it correctly on the young woman he seeks.
Also amusing was the hopping and skipping Pedrillo (Juan Ahumada) in a Hawaian shirt whose total cheerfulness seemed so out of place that I couldn’t do anything but smile. Mr. Ahumada, I am sure, must be bruised by this role since Blonda landed a solid and well deserved slap on his cheek at one point. Then, later during the escape scene, she chucks several bags at him flying high over the central set piece which sent him scrambling back and forth to catch. By the time Osmin succeeded in recapturing his wayward prisoners, Mr. Ahumada was rightfully deserving a rest but at least his impressive top notes were all out of the way by then.
When it comes to the high stuff it was the lovelorn Konstanze (Jeanai LaVita) with her gorgeous soprano who took most of the spotlight there, as Mozart probably intended. Her soaring arias were sang to the Pasha Selim, leader of the revolutionaries. As the plot unfolds, he is very close to succeeding in his amorous pursuits. It is true that at one point he gets frustrated. He flings the soprano to the ground accompanied by a gasp from the audience (that’s just not done!).
The Pasha, a non-singing role, was played adroitly by the director, Jason Dolmetsch, in dark aviator sunglasses and grasping a riding crop in his hand as if trying to be in disguise. Against Osmin’s hulking size, the Pasha’s tall thin figure made for a great ensemble from the physical standpoint. On that score, all the couples were well matched physically and vocally, full of pleasing contrasts and each of them filling their character’s needs superbly.
This observer has seen operas at Hubbard Hall before, and at major opera houses on both coasts. My first at Hubbard Hall was Carmen – a theatrical version which included all the famous arias – which I thoroughly enjoyed. I especially found the intimacy of the space there quite charming. They did it on the floor where the front row seats sat. Somehow it seemed the intimacy aspect was superior for me to my memories of the big houses. I’ve heard stories of how in Italy opera could be performed in most any small town and people of all classes all across the country grow up with that experience.
My second trip to Hubbard Hall was in 2011 to see Don Pasquale in a superbly crafted full production with orchestra. Excellent singing, too, by the way, and I could see a director had worked hard to bring it fully to the stage. And the subtitles were a big help, since I don’t speak Italian.
And while I can’t quite put my finger on it, I gotta say, there’s something just a bit magical about seeing opera in the country. It’s the best of two very different worlds.
Steve Dahlin of East Chatham, NY is a professional singer of opera, sacred choral, art song and musical theater music, a member of the five man a Capella group Quintessential of Stockbridge, MA (which will sing “anything that moves” except barbershop) and as an audience member, enjoys theater, opera, and live music of many genres.