Abduction from the Believable

Written on November 22, 2008 by Rolf Strom-Olsen in Arts & Cultures & Societies

Rolf Strom-Olsen

Mere frippery this week, I regret, from my tired brain. But I have a complaint to air, and why not here at ST? I recently attended a very robust performance of Mozart’s opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail, or the Abduction from the Seraglio as it is known to English-language audiences. Of all Mozart’s operas, this was apparently the most popular during his lifetime and it was frequently performed in Vienna and elsewhere.

This tidbit of information, gleaned  from the concert notes, frankly surprised me. Not only is the music far less memorable than Mozart’s three great operatic masterpieces, Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni and Die Zauberflöte, but the storyline is frankly ridiculous.

Here’s a rough synopsis. Three English travelers, a noblewoman, her maidservant and the maid’s fiancé, are captured at sea by the Turkish Pasha. A fourth, the noblewoman’s lover, remains free and vows to rescue his future wife. The others meanwhile are returned to Turkey, where the noblewoman (chastely) joins the Pasha’s harem guarded over by the keeper Osmin, who in turn takes the maidservant as his wife (also chastely!). Osmin is a comic caricature of ‘Turkish tyranny’ even by the stereotyped standards of late eighteenth century Vienna and he steals the show for most of the first act. Mozart clearly enjoyed setting to music the various promised tortures and deaths that the cuckolded Osmin threatens after discovering the maidservant and her fiancé are still amorous.

Anyway, long opera short, after most of three acts in which plans to escape the Pasha’s evil clutches are hatched, executed and then stymied, the story comes to an emotional climax when the Pasha, facing the now-caught escapees, threatens all kinds of horrendous retributions, egged on by the bloodlust of Osmin. Then dénouement. The Pasha returns, after the lovers have had a final wail about their fate, and announces that he’s thought it all over and they can go. Fin d’opéra. Curtain falls, singers get roses, we go home.

Wait? That’s it? Hang on a moment. Now opera is obviously mostly about the music, but is also theatre. Just because the story is punctuated by arias, duets, choruses and the like does not mean the audience is completely impervious to the plotline. And with expectations set for the better part of two hours for some kind of dangerous and adventure filled extrication, it is frankly a letdown to end the whole thing with an out-of-nowhere mercy shrug.

For some reason, librettists seem to have felt that once the audience
was willing to accept the admittedly ridiculous artifice of opera
generally (I will kill you, but first we will sing about it for 10
minutes in duet), then they could dispense with storyline. Other
examples abound. Bizet’s Carmen would fail a first-year university
creative writing program. Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin is as if someone
tore five pages from the original Pushkin
at random and said, let’s set this to music. Mozart’s Magic Flute has
practically no discernible story at all. Strauss’ Frau ohne Schatten is
like trying to read Hegel drunk. And I can no longer abide Puccini’s
Tosca since the setting, plot and characters are frankly absurd beyond

Is it curmudgeonly to ask for a story that aspires to something a
little more than this? Gounod’s Faust, for example, tells a good story.
So does Don Giovanni and Verdi’s Don Carlo. It can be done. Opera’s
artifice provides, in one sense, its extraordinary emotional power. But
I fail to understand why this alleviates the librettist’s
responsibility not to insult the intelligence with plotlines that are
beyond belief bad. Yes, we go see Tosca for the music (mostly, hmm,
entirely for Nessun Dorma). But frankly a little narrative would help.


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