Wajdi Mouawad, playwright and director entirely new to opera, read the libretto to Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio one day and decided it was not woke enough. Instead of looking at some other productions of this opera and and reading up on in and on Mozart’s own politics and oeuvre, he decided that, according to his notes:
-it condemns one civilization at the expense of another [it does not]
-that it might be read today as an exercise in caricature, or casual racism [libretto does not inevitably read as anything. If you decide to stage it like that, sure]
-it could constitute an argument for the “wholesale rejection of Islam and the East, thereby falling into larger patterns of Islamophobia in the West which would have us blame all our problems on the threat of an undifferentiated “Arabic” Other”. [What to do with this? I’ll just add that Ottomans weren’t Arabic and nobody in the libretto calls them that.]
So Mouawad rewrote the libretto (or Lyon-COC asked them to do it) to make the western side of the east-west encounter more obviously nasty. Like, really really nasty – and he wants you to know how nasty they are by opening the opera with the scene of a party in which the smug Europeans drunkenly discuss the escape from the Seraglio (the retelling of which we are about to see) by making fun of those awful Muhammedans and by desecrating the representations of the Prophet. This is entirely made up by Mouawad and is nowhere in the libretto.
What’s already in the original libretto, and what a good director can easily bring forward, is precisely the undermining of the idea that “west is best” and that “east is backward”– and the questioning of the east-west division tout court. But Mouaward keeps putting these ideas into the libretto with his own rewrites.
Terrified that any sign of cultural differences could be read as ‘Orientalist‘, Mouawad opted for a set of grey blocks and dresses all the principals in plan robes at the Pasha court (well, I say court… grey walls, on a planet, somewhere). The Janissaries and courtiers are all bald-headed creatures of indeterminate sex. While talking happens face to face, much of aria singing is to the audience: the old-fashioned p&b or a wish to de-naturalize the staging, I couldn’t decide.
Mouawad wants us to know loud and clear that the “Muslim” side (that’s what the Pasha & comp are reduced to here) are not the bad guys; that the pompous, prancing, moneyed idiot that is Belmonte represents the awful Europeans accurately (that’s already in the original libretto, hello). The abducting of women and their captivity is actually quite a sedate business. The Act II Blonde-Osmin battle of the sexes over consent is presented as purged of any real danger of violence ever breaking: it’s a teasing performance. So is Osmin’s rage in another scene.
There are a couple of extraordinary moments in the staging which stand out amidst all the blandness. After the intermission, the opera re-opens with a muezzin chant and we’re in a mosque, with women and men of the Pasha’s court praying — separated, and this is used well for the secret Pedrillo-Blonde exchange. It’s a moment of stillness: the Allahu Akbar chant and the swishing of the clothes as the worshipers bow and rise in prayer. (Did Ottoman Turks use Arabic in prayer? But of course Mouawad’s Pasha is not very Turkish; Mouawad is more interested in placing him and Osmin as the “Muslim Arabic Other” of the Bush Jr. era Pentagon and the American cable news.) Another intriguing tidbit: Blonde leaves the Seraglio pregnant. (This does not make the Act II negotiation between Osmin and Blonde entirely meaningless: they’re already in a relationship, but the question of consent of course remains.)
The musical side too was unusually clunky last night – disjointed, until almost two thirds in, when music finally gained its polish and the stage and the pit finally danced to the same tune. (Johannes Debus at the podium.) The fizz sorely lacked from the overture, and the act 1 continued as a very deflated, fatigued Mozart. Jane Archibald as Konstanze had her ups and downs, vocally, but credit to her for carrying this production in German — the Lyon one was with French dialogues, and this was a whole new chunk of spoken text to learn. Goran Juric as Osmin and Claire de Sevigne as Blonde were more evenly fueled throughout the evening, with Juric’s bass tireless and precise, and de Sevigne’s sharp, bright, exact singing, though a bit more volume wouldn’t have gone amiss. The actor of Israeli origin, Raphael Weinstock, played the Pasha. Mauro Peter was a decent Belmonte and got to shine in a lot of pretty music, though the character itself is a pompous balloon in need of piercing. It’s a tough act to pull, making Belmonte lovable, and he eventually gets there.
Yet the greatest sin of this production is not that it tries to make an 18th century libretto as inoffensive and didactic as possible; its greatest sin is that it’s deadly boring. The dialogues are endless because they are explanatory; the drama is expunged entirely, because that’s what happens when you eliminate any hint of genuine conflict, disagreement or even difference.
And I must add one last thing. Mouawad was probably asked to rewrite the libretto because he was born in Lebanon and has lived both in Middle East and “the west’ (Canada, and now France). Which is great. But if a woman of any culture was asked for her take on the libretto, it would have been a different take — and a different staging. For example, Leila Slimani, I wonder what she’d make of it? Mouawad’s now flaunted feminist record is not entirely impeccable (7 years ago, he chose to hire Bernard Cantat as a collaborator, the pop singer who served a sentence for killing his girlfriend Marie Trintignant, explaining that the singer had “already paid his debt to society” in, among other places, this insufferable Letter to My Daughter).
Bon ben. Men continue to write and rewrite the canon and decide what is and isn’t culturally offensive and what is and isn’t feminist in it.
Instead of leaving the production thrilled by its directorial vision and musical interpretation, I left Mouawad’s Seraglio thinking about that instead. And of that woker-than-thou correction our Prime Minister recently offered to a woman speaking in public.