Mozart’s first full-length German Singspiel has had three complete outings at the Proms: in 1968, 1972 and tonight. All were given by Glyndebourne forces – involving the LPO the first two times, the period-instrument OAE tonight – and were semi-staged (well, I know 1972 was, because I attended it: about the ’68, like any good sommelier, I’m not so sure; but have been told it was). The present performance comes to the capital at the end of its run of sixteen in the Sussex Downs, the first new production of the opera to be mounted there for decades (has there been one since Peter Wood’s exquisite blue-and-white tiled staging debuted in 1980? If so, I can’t place it.) As is par for the course these days, the musical text is given complete, including the dialogue: indeed, more than complete, since we get a march preceding the Pasha’s entrance in the first act I never recall hearing before, as well as any amount of the Adagio third movement of Mozart’s “Gran partita” wind serenade K.361 in B-flat major – the one that Salieri rhapsodises about in Amadeus – tacked on as underscore for a lengthy scene of dialogue out in the garden, alas already rendered largely inaudible in the Royal Albert Hall by overlaid electronic sounds of waves lapping and birds twittering. This is sonic overkill in what is already an acoustic nightmare as it is, without adding to the problems.

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I’m certain that the inclusion of virtually all the spoken dialogue theoretically brings dramatic advantages in terms of clarifying the story and establishing motivation (I’d never realised before that the Pasha is a Muslim convert, presumably from Christianity, which leaves him reluctant to force his women: “er hat noch so viel Delikatesse keine seiner Weibe zu seiner Liebe zu zwingen”) And David McVicar has clearly worked very hard on directing his cast in speaking it, with a wide range of mood, pace and emphasis indistinguishable from that of a real play. Unfortunately, this all takes time: quite a lot of time, in fact, and it would be idle to pretend that it entirely earned its keep down south, let alone here, where the performance is inevitably stripped of the cosseting, contextualising effects of sets and surtitles, and – as often as not from where I was sitting – basic audibility. The net result was, I’m afraid, frequently leaden, creating dramatic dead patches with the audience’s collective head plunged deep in the printed libretto and translation attempting to establish quite what all the meaningful pauses could be apropos. Would it really be beyond the wit of man to harness that ghastly dot-matrix board that curls around the back of the orchestral platform and is used only for broad-brush lighting effects of the coarsest cast to carry surtitles instead?

I doubt that cause and effect were at work, but it seemed to me that after a long stretch of German dialogue, Glyndebourne’s Music Director Robin Ticciati took the next available musical allegro at a breakneck pace, as if trying to reignite theatrical fires left to grow cold. This would matter less if it didn’t discommode so many of the cast in the process, not least the rich-voiced Osmin – Tobias Kehrer – who frequently found himself vocally out-of-step with his orchestral accompaniment (the coloratura in “O, wie will ich triumphieren!” was all over the shop): and pity the poor chorus that was expected to maintain ensemble whilst singing their praises of the Pasha in Act I at such a ferocious clip. Elsewhere, Ticciati can run to the expansive when called for – “Traurigkeit” very properly adagio – though I can’t say I detect much expressive affekt audible as a result: and, beyond their vicious velocity, his allegros are short on wit and genuine sparkle. You don’t have to go back half a lifetime, merely 14 years, to the last time the ROH gave the work (in Moshinsky’s straightforward staging from the late 1980s) under Charles Mackerras to hear all too clearly what is missing here: balance, poise, unforced energy and expression, and – dare I say it – charm. .

Sally Matthews sang Konstanze with considerable technical address and some unexpectedly needle-sharp coloratura – “Martern aller Arten”, uncut and unforgiving, quite the triumph – but to my ears she is completely vocally miscast in the role, her thickly-covered, voce soffocata timbre, all wet cloth and clots, at total odds with the character (it doesn’t help that I’ve just been listening to Nézet-Séguin’s new recording with Diana Damrau, who is sensational in the part: nor that in 1972 my first live Konstanze was Margaret Price, and the most recent, Christine Schäfer). The worst you could say about her technically is that she has no trill (rather a sine qua non in Mozart, admittedly, but she’s scarcely unique in not having one these days; neither does anybody else in this cast): elsewhere, the voice is a superb instrument. But try as I might, I can’t think what repertory is right for her timbre – Jugenddramatisch Strauss and Wagner, perhaps? Perhaps not – or even what would suit her any better than this (certainly not Blanche in Dialogues du Carmélites, that’s for sure). As it is, I’m left with general admiration for her musicality, great appreciation of her artistry, and enthusiasm for her dramatic skills: but her voice, considered simply as sound, strikes me as inappropriate for much of the repertory – virtuoso virgins, basically – she elects to sing.

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Mutatis mutandis, I could write the same about Edgaras Montvidas, whose Belmonte is sung with high skill and taste, but in a voice so pressurised and fibrously bleaty that any sheer auditory pleasure has to be retrieved as best it can from the technical excellence (anybody who can actually sing Act III’s oft-cut “Ich baue ganz auf deine Stärke” is clearly a force to be reckoned with: but Lord, what a plain, pinched thing he makes of it). Of course, like Matthews, he looks good (is this what principally determines opera house casting nowadays, not so much one as both eyes glued to the HD relay and subsequent Blu-ray?). But the sound is alas entirely something else (and just to rub salt on the wound, Villazón on the new recording is absolutely stupendous, a state of affairs I wouldn’t have believed any longer possible until hearing his stunning Don Ottavios at Covent Garden last month).

I found the Pedrillo very much the victim of directorial overkill: relentlessly shouty in dialogue, and generally hyperactive throughout, always doing something, busy, busy, busy: I’d object less if it didn’t materially affect the quality of the singing: but it does. Brenden Gunnell has the right voice-type for the role, but generally gets to sing his brief – though delightful – arias after, or indeed during, elaborate physical by-play, so that it would be fairer to report on his actual singing given a better opportunity to appreciate it without impediment. Something of the same is also true of Kehrer’s Osmin: but the superb quality of the voice comes through regardless of the amount of time he spends racing around cracking a (very loud) whip. For those of us reared on Robert Lloyd and Kurt Moll in the role, the underlying avuncularity has evidently been ditched altogether in favour of something closer to malignant psychopathy, which might get us somewhere in, say, Shakespeare, but doesn’t cut much mustard in an Enlightenment musical comedy.

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Pasha Selim, here the inevitable object of McVicar’s perennial preoccupation with toned torsos, was entrusted to Franck Saurel, quite the athlete according to his programme biography. A pity then that in all the consideration given to how many abs to expose and how much oil to apply to them, it sounds to me as if no-one thought to check if he had a role-suitable speaking voice at all. Thomas Quasthoff, no less, takes the role on the DG recording, and mesmerizingly mellifluous and seductive he is too, even in retirement. Here, in stark contrast, we get a Pasha with a hollow-toned, coarsely-rasping speaking voice naturally higher than that of the Belmonte, which simply makes nonsense of the role and his supposed appeal to Konstanze. Even Pedrillo had a sexier voice, and he wasn’t even trying…

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To my mind, of the five vocal principals, much the most successful was Mari Eriksmoen as a truly memorably self-assured Blonde. Indeed, so refined, poised, crystal-clear and accurate is her silvery lyric voice that she should surely be singing Konstanze herself (and Mrs. Glyndebourne – Danielle de Niese – singing Blonde, a role she was born to play). Eriksmoen’s spirited defence of her freedom as a female Englishwoman whom Osmin will never subjugate as he can his own women brought a spontaneous burst of applause: and this for a piece of dialogue! In a cast of excellent actors she stood out: in a cast of decent if not always apposite singers, she shone. She is a born star, and I can’t wait to hear and see her in Bow Street (though I bet I have to. Puh!).

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment played to their usual standard, though I’ve no doubt that many subtleties of phrase and dynamic went missing in the RAH’s acoustic mush (typically noticeable from where I was sitting in Block L that when Belmonte sat down at the foot of Ticciati’s podium to sing his Act III aria, the voice suddenly grew in size by about 75%, most of which seemed to be coming from behind me). Good work from the 24-strong Glyndebourne chorus, making up for in sonority what it lacked in precision of ensemble (though the latter is down to the conductor rather than them). I always find myself wondering which of them we’ll be hearing again as starry soloists in their own right somewhere down the line.

3 stars

Stephen Jay-Taylor © 2015

(Photos of the Glyndebourne Festival Opera production – by Richard Hubert Smith)