'Abduction': Taken With a Grain of Salt

Jennifer Casey Cabot as Constanze and Richard Clements as Belmonte in Mozart's
Jennifer Casey Cabot as Constanze and Richard Clements as Belmonte in Mozart's "The Abduction From the Seraglio." (National Symphony Orchestra)

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By Daniel Ginsberg
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, January 27, 2006

"Too many notes, my dear Mozart," Hapsburg Emperor Joseph II famously commented when he first heard the composer's "The Abduction From the Seraglio." More than providing fodder for the 1984 film "Amadeus," the comment -- facile though it may be -- points to the novel nature of Mozart's 1782 opera. "The Abduction From the Seraglio" shows its creator consistently extending forms and deepening expression, refining the dramatic style that would blossom so fully in later operas such as "The Marriage of Figaro."

Last evening at the Kennedy Center, the National Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of its musical director, Leonard Slatkin, put on an enjoyable if uneven production of "Abduction," K. 384. The evening featured moments of resplendent singing, but the proceedings occasionally went slack and the spoken dialogue missed some sizzle. If the performance never really took off, it did have its moments, and the central qualities of this opera were more than illuminated.

Along with some beautifully lyrical arias and strong characters, "The Abduction From the Seraglio" continues to please because of its evocative music and fast-paced story. The three-act comic opera, sung in German, addresses themes of longing, love and loyalty in an exotic setting. The Spanish noble Belmonte seeks to rescue his kidnapped beloved, Constanze, her maid Blonde and his servant Pedrillo from the hands of the Turkish Pasha and his henchman. The Pasha foils the rescue plot but eventually frees the captives in a grand act of enlightened generosity.

Coming in around two hours, the opera easily could be done as a straight-up concert presentation. The NSO opted instead for a semi-staged version that featured cartoon projections above the stage, pervasive blue drapery and an awkwardly arranged stage. The Douglas Fitch-designed setting put the musicians to the back and left with the action on the right. This setup created balance problems, with the sound blending only when the singers moved to the front.

A buoyant cast invested its full energy. Jennifer Casey Cabot brought her arresting, angelic tone to the part of Constanze, who courageously fends off the advances of the pining Pasha. Cabot's singing merged pathos and focus with a gleaming top range. Tenor Richard Clement perhaps overdid his part as the dimwitted Belmonte, making you wonder at times why Constanze would remain devoted to him. Tenor Robert Baker and soprano JiYoung Lee were the witty, wonderful-sounding duo of Blonde and Pedrillo, each trying to get around the ferocious henchman Osmin, a role powerfully filled by bass Kevin Short.

Perhaps most jarring was the part of the Pasha, filled by ABC News's Sam Donaldson. Projected on video for the first two acts, Donaldson delivered his lines haltingly and without the authoritative force you would expect from a feared leader. His appearance may have provided a fun Washington moment, but it had the feel of a gimmick that did not ultimately serve the opera.

Today marks the 250th birthday of the composer, and the NSO dedicated the performance, which repeats tonight and tomorrow evening, to Mozart's genius.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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