Plays, movies, concerts, art galleries: yeah, been there, seen that. The opera: nope. Stories of sweeping emotions and decadent affairs had aroused my imagination. As a thirty-something San Franciscan it was high time I high-tailed it down to the War Memorial Opera House to attend the S.F. Opera's current production of Mozart's comic masterpiece The Abduction from the Seraglio (seraglio = harem).
I hopped in a cab, and, anxious and excited, prematurely told the driver "thanks, this is good" two blocks too far away mistaking some other Civic Center structure as my destination. Briskly, I headed in the right direction alongside an obvious stream of opera goers (read: diamond-studded older white people) and even some from the hipster crowd (read: people who look like me). A fair amount of rubbernecking was in order upon entering the castle-like lobby of marble walls and ornate ceilings. I definitely wasn't in Kansas anymore, Toto, or, at least, not in my familiar Nob Loin neighborhood. I picked up my ticket, grabbed a cookie, found the restroom down some stairs and through a labyrinth, and got back to my plush seat in time for the show to begin.
Lights down and curtain up. Meet Belmonte, one of the two dashing lovers, looking for his love, Constanze, who had been sold as a slave to the Pasha Selim (fancy name for "owner of the palace" played by Bay Area actor Charles Shaw Robinson). The gatekeeper, Osmin (Peter Rose), prevented Belmonte from entering. Belmonte soon encountered his manservant Pedrillo (Andrew Bidlack) who, along with his love, Blonde, are also the property of the Pasha. Tenor Matthew Polenzani as Belmonte was captivating. He thrilled and gave goosebumps with his Act I aria: "Here shall I see you, Constanze, you my hope." His voice effortlessly filled the 3,000-plus-seat house with forte and even finer still in I-could-hear-a-pin-drop pianissimo.
Act II began with the feisty Blonde, played and sung with flirtatious and comic verve by Anna Christy, refusing the advances of Osmin. A parallel story played out later when Constanze appeared to sing "Tortures of all kinds" in defiance of the Pasha's threat of torture if she were to reject him. Returning to the SF Opera stage, soprano Mary Dunleavy grabbed on to this most challenging aria of vocal acrobatics and devoured every note (and there are many -- "too many notes" so said the Emperor who commissioned the opera 200 years ago -- or so the infamous tale goes). It was a highlight of the evening and elicited well-deserved "brava's" from the audience.
Act III provoked laughter when Pedrillo, before embarking upon the high stakes plan to rescue the women from the palace, paused to announce the need for a serenade. "Just don't drag it out," replied Belmonte. All arias drag it out -- a good thing when Mozart does it. During Pedrillo's interlude, the four lovers were captured. The Pasha arrived and, upon learning that Belmonte is the son of his greatest enemy, sentenced them to death. Constanze and Belmonte shared a heart wrenching duet: "Oh what a fate, oh soul's misery." The Pasha returned and, touched by their sorrow, granted liberty to all.
Designer David Zinn created a sumptuous feast for the eyes. The set was a stage onstage complete with its own balcony boxes, proscenium, and footlights(!) It took a while for my brain to wrap around this aesthetic choice. I slowly embraced it as a way to allow for other theatrical devices: a two-dimensional boat sailing by, a door appearing from the floorboards, and a lute being handed from the prompter's box. More eye candy followed with the 18th century period-perfect costumes. Each actor was dressed in garb that not only looked specific to the period and specific for each lover's pairing, but was also tricked out with extra flair, ruffle, and sparkle.
Chas Rader-Shieber, making his SF Opera debut, succeeded in directing with the kind of simple storytelling this "Singspiel" opera asks for. He rightly allowed for the comic moments to be comic (the top of Act II duet between Osmin and Blonde) and the heartfelt moments to be dramatic (Constanze and Belmonte's duet in Act III). ("Singspiel": a term referring to an opera where much of the action moves forward through spoken dialogue and the arias have time for fuller expression of a thought or feeling.) The last moment of the opera left me scratching my head, though. What I heard was a bright, happily-ever-after, and redemptive finale: "Never will I thy kindness forget", but what I saw was a somber group of soldiers, a dark night sky, and the Pasha holding his head in his hands as if grief stricken. Shouldn't there have been a celebration?
The evening, clocking in at an engaging 2 hours and 40 minutes, ended with shouts of bravo and a well-earned standing ovation. I've read the opera that was quite a financial and critical success when it first appeared over two hundred years ago. I wouldn't be surprised if the same reaction takes place for the SF Opera's production today. As for me, an opera virgin no more, it all felt so good that I'm planning my next tryst with Salome in October.
The Abduction from the Seraglio, a co-production with Lyric Opera of Chicago, runs through October 23, 2009 at the SF Opera located at 301 Van Ness Ave, San Francisco. Sung in German with English dialogue and English supertitles. For tickets and information visit sfopera.org.