The most famous quotation attached to Mozart’s first opera for Vienna, allegedly from Emperor Joseph himself, “Far too beautiful for our ears, my dear Mozart, and far too many notes,” glosses over the fact this musical comedy was both instantly popular and remarkably inventive. Like its five great siblings, The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, Cosi fan Tutte, The Magic Flute and La Clemenza di Tito, The Abduction from the Seraglio works within its particular genre while expanding its range and astonishing us with the variety of its forms. The two German operas Mozart wrote for Vienna, Abduction and Magic Flute, were each a Singspiel (literally “Singing play,” but better translated as “musical comedy”), intended for audiences of not just the court and aristocracy, but the military, the professional, and middles classes. Mozart’s Abduction was a hit from its opening night in the sweltering summer of 1782. By the time of the composer’s death less than a decade later, it had been performed in over 30 European cities. More than any of his previous works, it established Mozart as one of the leading composers of the era. Critics were so taken with Mozart’s musico-dramatic genius they gushed effusively, as his first biographer, Niemetschek observed:
"it was as if what had hitherto been taken for music was nothing of the kind. Everyone was enchanted, amazed at the novel harmonies, the new, unprecedented way the wind instruments were treated."
Indeed, given our über-familiarity with Mozart’s style, his seemingly effortless grace and élan, the propulsive energy and vivacity of his music, it is helpful to be reminded just how novel this music was in the last decades of the 18th century. Building on the orchestral richness of his previous opera, Idomeneo, Mozart composed an unprecedented range of instrumental color into his score. This is most obvious from the “Turkish” music introduced right from the start of the overture. “I doubt if anyone could fall asleep during it, even if he hadn’t slept a wink the night before,” Mozart wrote. The “exotic” qualities of the music, en vogue across Europe at the time, are evoked by the augmented percussion section, the bright upper register of the piccolo, and the use of the Lydian scale (which has a raised 4th step: F-sharp in C major). Mozart’s genius is to integrate these elements into the score to serve the drama. Here are the 26-year old composer’s observations on one of the arias for the oafish bass:
"Osmin’s rage is made comic, as the Turkish music is brought in…and as his rage increases, just when you think the aria is ending – comes the Allegro assai [very fast],in a completely different tempo and key…For just as a man in such a towering rage oversteps all order, moderation and restraint and completely forgets himself, so the music must forget itself."
Belmonte’s aria, “O wie Ängstlich” [O how anxious], uses the orchestra to equal, albeit distinct, dramatic effect. Here the tenor’s “beating heart, full of love, is depicted by the violins in octaves.” That Mozart would, against his Father’s wishes, marry Constanze Weber in between performances of this opera whose heroine shares the namesake of his beloved is another example of art imitating life.
We have chosen to place our production in a “timeless modern” setting, and have updated the dialogue accordingly. The central theme which courses through Mozart’s incomparable musical dramas is the range and depth of the human heart. Whether set in a Turkish harem or a nameless American mansion, Mozart’s music lives through his characters. However they compare to the “types” we expect on the operatic stage – Romantic hero (tenor), tragic heroine or soubrette (soprano) – Mozart’s creations transcend their individual roles and speak to us through the universal language of human experience. This is but one of the reasons why his operas, more than 200 years on, are as popular and enduring as ever.