Mozart: The Abduction from the Seraglio. Harald Pfeiffer, Piotr Beczala, Ingrid Habermann, Donna Ellen, Oliver Ringelhahn, Franz Kalchmair; Choir of the Landestheater Linz and Bruckner Orchestra Linz conducted by Martin Sieghart. Oehms. $16.99 (2 CDs).
Verdi: Requiem. Luba Orgonášová, soprano; Anke Vondung, mezzo-soprano; Alfred Kim, tenor; Carlo Colombara, bass; Gãchinger Kantorei Stuttgart and Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR conducted by Helmuth Rilling. Hänssler Classic. $29.99 (2 CDs).
Opera evolved as the mass entertainment of its day, but it developed in several different directions – not only comic (or at least less-serious) opera vs. opera seria, but also opera with everything sung (including recitatives for connective dialogue) vs. opera with spoken as well as sung elements (Singspiel and, later, operetta). In all its forms, opera was sometimes conventional, sometimes beyond the conventions of its time – and Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio, a pioneering German-language Singspiel, certainly pushed the boundaries of its day. The wonder is that it remains so fresh, entertaining and thoroughly delightful today, when the Ottoman Empire is long gone, the notion of “Turkish music” has disappeared from classical parlance, and the entire plot of white slavery in a harem has lost whatever relevance it once had (although the underlying conflict between European and Islamic values, on which the plot partly turns, is as relevant now as it was at the work’s first performance in 1782). The re-release of this Linz performance recorded in 1996-97 is a good opportunity to hear what makes this Singspiel work. The dialogue, not as extensive as in opera seria, moves the action along, but so do some of the arias (which is rarely the case in opera seria); and the characters have considerable life to them – they may be types, but they are interesting types. (Listeners will have to find a libretto elsewhere: this CD set provides only a synopsis of the action.) The music is, of course, simply wonderful. The fascinating twist at the end, in which Selim (Harald Pfeiffer, in a crucial all-spoken role) shows mercy to all his captives even after learning that Belmonte (Piotr Beczala) is the son of his greatest enemy, gives the lie to notions of “good” Europeans and “evil” Turks, for all that the Ottomans were a genuine threat to Europe when Abduction was written. It is worth noting that Mozart’s operas are again and again about forgiveness: Così fan tutte turns entirely on the subject, and even Don Giovanni is given every opportunity to repent and be forgiven. As for Abduction, Belmonte and Konstanze (Ingrid Habermann) are the “serious” couple, with the big arias, but as characters they are something of a bore. Beczala and Habermann sing in grand style, but these are, after all, rather wooden roles. Blonde (Donna Ellen) is actually a more interesting soprano part, filled with humor and flirtatiousness – although in this recording, Ellen takes things a touch too seriously. Pedrillo is a more straightforward “servant” role, which Oliver Ringelhahn handles well. And the part of Osmin (Franz Kalchmair) is a gem, and very difficult indeed to perform (with notes as low as anything the Russians were to demand in the next century). Kalchmair gets the bluster and swagger right, especially in the first act, although it would be nice to have a little more over-the-top vocal acting here. Martin Sieghart conducts effectively if not particularly thrillingly, and the orchestra and chorus are very fine indeed – making this perhaps not the very best Abduction possible, but a more-than-serviceable one filled with many lovely moments.
It was nearly 100 years after Abduction that Verdi’s Requiem was first performed – in 1874, on the first anniversary of the death of poet/novelist Alessandro Mazzoni. Opera had climbed spectacular heights in the intervening years (and sunk to some remarkable depths as well); Verdi himself was largely responsible for many of the plusses and at least some of the minuses of Italian opera in his time. (The notion of a composer working equally adeptly in Italian and German styles, as Mozart did, was quite foreign to the 19th century, although Rossini did pretty well using both Italian and French libretti.) Verdi’s is the most operatic Requiem of all, even more so than the earlier (and equally grandiose) one by Berlioz. Verdi even quoted from some of his opera music in the Requiem. But whether the Verdi Requiem should be given a highly operatic performance remains a matter of opinion. It is easy to make the work overstated, even vulgar – the Dies irae is as intense (and potentially overdone) as can be. But there is great beauty and subtlety in Verdi’s work as well, and Helmuth Rilling’s performance wisely takes a middle ground between hyper-emotionalism and the sort of quieter, more overtly religious approach that is traditional in other Requiems, if not this one. The soloists do not strive for undue drama – although Carlo Colombara comes close a few times – but generally present the words feelingly and without excess. The result is a very moving performance that does not have to push itself (as operas so often do) in order to achieve its effects. The opening Requiem aeternam and the Agnus dei, in particular, prove more effective here than they often are – instead of being way stations on the road to the Dies irae and Libera me, they are an integral part of the whole work, which is surely what Verdi intended. There is quite enough splendor in Verdi’s Requiem without turning the work into an emotional eruption along the lines of many of his operas; it is to Rilling’s credit that he brings out the beauty and drama of the piece without feeling the need to overstate it or inflate it artificially.