A Smorgasbord of Notes, in Mozart's 'Abduction from the Seraglio'

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What sort of music might be described as having "too many notes?" Chopin's rapid-fire "Minute Waltz," perhaps? Or maybe the frantic swirl of Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumblebee?" Nope. According to legend, at least, it was an opera: Mozart's The Abduction from the Seraglio.

 

It was Emperor Joseph II who reportedly offered that tin-eared conclusion about the opera's note-count, after its 1782 premiere, in Vienna. What he actually told the composer, according to one observer, was, "That's an awful lot of notes, my dear Mozart."     

 

You may remember the famous story from its cinematic recreation in the movie Amadeus. In that scene, the Emperor uses the more familiar "too many notes" line, though he does also concede that the drama he just enjoyed is, "quite new." And what Mozart put on the stage for the Emperor was indeed something new. As the poet Goethe once said, Mozart's Abduction "knocked everything else sideways."

 

The opera was also quite fashionable. Anything Turkish was in style at the time, and accordingly, Mozart sets Abduction in a Turkish harem. He also flavored the music with the bang and clang of extra percussion, evoking Turkey's Janissary bands -- especially in the rollicking overture.

 

But Abduction was far more than just Turkish and trendy. The depth of Mozart's music had been increasing constantly, and Abduction may represent the first time his phenomenal genius for the complexities of musical theater was heard in full bloom. In letters to his father he wrote about trying to capture the very heartbeats of emotion in his characters.

 

Abduction is the crazy story of two men rescuing their lovers from a Pasha's harem, but the way Mozart blends high comedy with touching tragedy signals his new maturity as an opera composer.

 

The famous quartet in Act Two, sung by the two principal couples, is almost a miniature opera within itself. It begins and ends with the joy of the lovers' reunion, yet its melancholy middle section palpably expresses the personal doubts darkening the characters' outward happiness.

 

Like Mozart's final opera, The Magic Flute, The Abduction from the Seragliois, is not, technically, an opera at all. It's an example of the German dramatic style called the singspiel, which alternates singing with lengthy passages of spoken dialogue. The spoken passages vary in length, and are often altered or updated, depending on the production.

 

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents The Abduction from the Seraglio in a Glyndebourne Festival production, presented as part of the 2015 Proms Concerts, in London. The production retains a great deal of the original dialogue, and the performances are all top notch -- both the singing and the speaking. For the radio, however, the spoken passages have been shortened a bit, while still preserving the overall feel of the production, and of an 18th-century, German singspiel.

 

It comes to us from London's Royal Albert Hall, with soprano Sally Matthews as Konstanze, and tenor Edgaras Montvidas as Belmonte. Also featured are the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and the Glyndebourne Festival Opera Chorus, with conductor Robin Ticciati.