To open up a libretto, or to rewrite it? The curious case of The Abduction from the Seraglio

I got hold of the libretto for Die Entführung aus dem Serail the other day (Cassell Opera Guides, London 1971) because I wanted to read it before the Wajdi Mouawad adaptation opens at the COC next week and see for myself again if the original was so egregiously xenophobic and orientalist as to warrant a radical rewrite. It is not, I will argue. It had occurred to me that this might be the case when I watched McVicar’s couldn’t-be-more-trad Abduction right after I watched the livestream of this Mouawad production from Lyon two years ago. But I wanted to be sure; and reading and re-reading the libretto itself, English by the German original (translation Lionel Salter) would be essential. 

Libretto is a hodge podge by Gottlieb Stephanie the Younger after C. F. Bretzner with Mozart himself editing as the dramaturge. There are two Ottoman Turkish characters, Pasha Selim and Osmin, mirroring the other two aristocracy + proletariat pairs, Constanze and Blonde, and Belmonte and Pedrillo. Pasha is a clement and wise ruler (similar to Tito, but more personality and more moral judgment – and in a lot of productions way hotter), and it’s only Osmin, something of a basso buffo, that may ruffle some oversensitive feathers. He is rough and peeved and mistrustful of the westerners, and threatens with torture and worse. In a lot of productions these play out as not particularly dark threats, since Osmin does not make these decisions himself, the Pasha does. Another instance where feathers may be ruffled — and which maybe ruffled Mouawad’s too — is the scene of the failed forced seduction between Osmin and Blonde who is technically in his possession, but resistant. At one point, he says “Tenderness? Coaxing? This is Turkey, and here we dance to a different tune. I’m the master, you’re my slave; I command, you must obey!” The argument that Blonde is clutching to is: I’m an Englishwoman, I’ve known freedom, and cannot submit now just because I’m in another part of the world.

There’s much to unpack here, nothing is straightforward, as is there much to unpack in the libretto as a whole. As Brigid Brophy, who wrote the intro to the Cassell guide, reminds, the “westerner goes abroad, writes home about the local customs” genre that bloomed alongside the global expansion of capitalist trade and colonization is more often than not a form of criticism of the local, western mores and governance – a form of political criticism of one’s own rulers disguised as a postcard from an exotic place. (OK, you can argue, but why didn’t the lot of them take the time to read up on different cultures instead of fantasizing about them for their own purposes? Some have, others haven’t. A valid question for  another conversation.) Here’s Brophy:

Exploration, commerce and empire gave eighteenth-century Europe the raw material for a cult of the exotic… Painters, including Stubbs and G.B. Tiepolo; architects, including J. Effner and John Nash; writers such as Pope, Montesquieu and Defoe; and librettists and composers of opera, including Frederick the Great and Mozart.

The effect made at home by travellers’ tales was the opposite of the effect intended abroad by most of the travellers. Missionaries set out to Christianize pagans, militarists and merchants to subdue and exploit savages. But from the information they sent back to Europe the message read by Enlightened thought was that pagans and savages might be more moral and more civilized than Christendom.

The taste for the exotic was the aesthetic and fictional face of a searching intellectual comparison. […] The form of the fictitious traveller’s tale, in which the traveller questions the natives about the institutions of their society and the answers cast a satirical and sceptical light on institutions at home, had been sketched by Sir Thomas More and is still in use by science fiction. In the eighteenth century Swift expanded the traveller’s tale into Gulliver’s Travels and Voltaire developed the form into his pamphlets in the shape of fictions (including his interplanetary science fiction, Micromegas).

So to return to my main question: of all operatic librettos of the standard repertoire, does The Abduction warrant a rewrite? Or do good, complex operas allow, are roomy enough, for a rewrite within existing parameters through an innovative, seriously engaging production? That’s what good staging does: identifies the kinks in the piece, and works up a concept that would make the opera viable to us, the present day audience. As I mentioned in my notes about the Lyon streaming of The Abduction, while Mouawad eliminates the danger of sexual slavery by making the easterners into Enlightenment salonniers who resolve conflicts through communication and not violence, the now notorious Bieito production of The Abduction emphasizes nothing but sexual slavery.

A good libretto can take this kind of interpretive beating on the regular, and is better for it.

And that’s how we re-signify most operas, without having to actually rewrite them. Has anybody done it with Butterfly, the rewrite? (Bieito’s production again reverses various things through the staging, but does not rewrite the actual text.) If there’s an opera in need of intervention, it’s that one. Or The Rape of Lucretia, which for me is a lost cause until someone radically re-stages the ending. The dramatically weak Il Trovatore could also use some help from a smart playwright. Most of Gluck needs an infusion of life. Yet the recent rewrite of the ending of Carmen in one (1) Italian production caused a disproportionate amount of international uproar.

The NYT went to Lyon the year of the premiere and hailed the production in its piece on (roughly) how art brings people together and reconciles the antagonisms, but it’s unfair to ask that of opera or any art form – to program itself in order to fix historical injustices. Is that what the arts are for? What an operatic production is for? I’d argue good art does that any way, but not because it sets out to do that, but by its very existence.

Anyway. I have a soft spot for Mozart and his librettists, who take the side of the women, the servants and the ‘cultural other’ par for the course. I’d argue that he’s the last of the standard rep titans whose operas should be rewritten because ‘offensive’ or ‘cliched’.

Remains to be seen if the COC Abduction is in any way different than the Lyon livestream. I’m keeping an open mind. Mouawad, who is now running Theatre de la Colline in Paris, has not been reviving his own production here; this fell to Valerie Negre, assistant director, and I think that’s good. Women should stage and (if needed) rewrite things that directly concern them, and decide if something in an operatic work is misogynist or not by themselves. I hope more of them break into opera directing – there are quite a few in the assistant tier right now. Negre had to follow Mouawad’s instructions, I’m sure, but maybe she added her own touches here and there as well.

The Abduction from the Seraglio, the Wajdi Mouawad transladaptation, opening on Feb 7 and runs through Feb 24.


11 thoughts on “To open up a libretto, or to rewrite it? The curious case of The Abduction from the Seraglio

  1. A few not very connected thoughts:

    I don’t think Entführung is especially offensive or in need of a rewrite. Certainly not in the top 10 in that category!

    Is it perhaps that we are more OK with rewriting spoken dialogue than sung text? There’s a strong tradition of doing this in operetta for example? Though I bet if one did it with Carmen there would be a riot.

    I often wonder whether Entführung read differently to a specifically 1782 Viennese audience than to Brophy’s generic “west”. It was after all less than 100 years before the premier that the Ottomans had stood before the gates of the city.

    There are certain operas that are seen as sacred and untouchable simply because they are well known which is absurd. Carmen and Butterfly both appear to come into this category.

    It’s perfectly possible to mess about with the sexual domination/slavery/torture them in Entführung without changing the text. Johan Simons Amsterdam production comes to mind where Selim is grovelling at Konstanza’s feet and Blonde takes a belt to Osmin’s ass.

  2. This is true:
    <<Is it perhaps that we are more OK with rewriting spoken dialogue than sung text?

    I was thinking about the "Ottomans at the gate" aspect as well, and how the libretto is unusually generous about an actual geopolitical enemy. I was looking for a contemporary parallel, it would be maybe like being an American playwright circa 1950s, writing positively about a kidnapping by the Soviet Russia…?

    There's a recent Aix production of The Abduction set in the IS. Which I think is just stretching it a tad. The IS is beyond the pale, the way Ottoman empire, a subject of fascination, orientalist research, international travel, and very real state-to-state enmity was not.

    About your last paragraph – I meant women's sexual slavery to these men, of course, though it's interesting that the production you mention bizarrely flips that and makes the women the dominant party?

  3. Producers do seem to play fast and free with spoken dialog–especially in this opera; but I’ve seen it others with spoken dialog. Herheim tossed out Abduction‘s text entirely and added his own thoughts on gender relations and marriage (M22); and Guth removed all dialog in Fidelo, and replaced it with electronic sounds (I still haven’t forgiven him for that!) Then there’s the Neuenfels rewrite (some old, a lot of new) of Abduction which is not a cultural rewrite so much as a commentary on the art of Singspiel (and the plot, to some extent, too.)

      1. Both Herheim and Neuenfels are worth checking out (IMHO). In fact, I love the Neuenfels version. Earworm’s done some thoughtful discussion of that one. Meanwhile:

        (1) we really do need to involve more women in these reinterpretations–especially when looking for non-patriarchal themes.

        (2) About a year ago, I realized that Entführung is actually the noun Germans use for Kidnapping (of course, Abduction is just a nicer word for kidnapping); and I keep mulling that over and the fact that the while the opera is often (usually?) treated as a Rescue, the title is telling us that Belmonte and Pedrillo are kidnapping the women. This could throw light on the ambiguity we sometimes see at the end. Do these women want to be “rescued”?

        From what I know of the Bieito version, Konstanze prefers death to “rescue” at the end. That’s a version I want to see/don’t want to see. I’ve a feeling I’d be super uncomfortable; at the same time, I’ve a feeling it’s not as horrible in “real life” as it is in my imagination.

        1. I don’t object to rewrites, but I really want them to work BETTER than the original. Why rewrite otherwise, guys? And a lot of these directors are not playwrights or writers. (Mouawad, credit to him, is)

          I’ve read about the Bieito production, but he goes for the most shocking, most base interpretation, and it’s become predictable. And why kill off women in those few operas in which they don’t die? But I haven’t seen it so shouldn’t really analyze it based on other people’s reviews.

          1. I was going to point you to a good review and discussion of the Bieito production, over at Likely Impossibilities; but then I realized you’ve commented on that post yourself! Still a good re-read. I find I enjoy revisiting a lot of these discussions.

      1. M22 was the Salzburg Mozart Festival in 2006, when they performed and videoed all 22 of Mozart’s operas. The Kusej Don Giovanni and Clemenza di Tito, the Herrmann’s Cosi, and the Guth Nozze are all part of that series.

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