After a season studded with torture, terminal illness and a couple of beheadings, Utah Opera artistic director Christopher McBeth is ready for a little fun. The company will close its season with “The Abduction From the Seraglio.”
“We want to brighten things up,” McBeth said of the Mozart comedy, which follows heavier and darker — albeit critically and commercially successful — productions of “Salome,” “La Traviata” and “Turandot.”
Given Mozart’s propensity for finding comedy in tragedy and vice versa, audiences shouldn’t expect pure fluff. McBeth said stage director Chas Rader-Shieber has “infused [the production] with layers of humanity and complexity that, frankly, I’d never seen before.”
“Abduction” follows the misadventures of two pairs of lovers in a Turkish harem, where the women have been sold to a pasha after being captured by pirates. Naturally, the pasha and his security chief have fallen in love with the women, which complicates the rescue.
McBeth and Rader-Shieber said operagoers might be surprised by the nobility, enlightenment and true love woven amid the hijinks.
“I’ve always thought it has great humanity, but if you stop after two acts, you might not know that,” Rader-Shieber said, alluding to a “shocking, surprising display” of mercy and magnanimity in the opera’s final act. The director added that “no character goes unchanged” — except, perhaps, for “funny, silly, grumbly old Osmin,” who is confounded by the changes he sees in everyone around him.
“Nothing is nearly as simple as it seems” in this opera, said tenor Andrew Stenson, who will portray the aristocrat Belmonte. Stenson, who will be singing the role for the first time after extensive preparation with conductor James Levine in the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program. He said Belmonte is a little naive when he charges into the palace and is startled to discover that his intended, Konstanze, has become the pasha’s favorite — and, worse, might not be 100 percent opposed to the situation. Soon enough, though, she reassures him of her love in one of Stenson’s favorite scenes.
“Her constancy shines so brightly and clearly even in the worst circumstances,” he said. “It’s not just the text; the music shows it, too. They sing together in beautiful harmonies. It’s rapturous. I don’t get to sing often with the soprano in harmony for an extended time. It’s a poignant, emotional moment.”
Playing opposite Stenson is Utah soprano Celena Shafer, who has sung leading roles in many of the world’s top opera houses. Though Shafer has played Konstanze’s maid, Blonde, and has sung leading roles in some of the world’s biggest opera houses, this is her first time singing what she called “the big-girl role” of Konstanze.
That role includes a famous 10-minute stretch of some of the most virtuosic singing in the opera canon. “When you hear Celena Shafer sing, my word, you’re just in awe, A, that anybody could even do that, and B, do it so beautifully and artistically and with such meaning,” said Gary Thor Wedow, who will conduct Utah Opera’s production.
Shafer relishes not only the exciting music, but the acting challenges as well. “If you play it black and white, you lose the humanity,” she said. For the first half of the opera, Konstanze doesn’t know whether Belmonte is alive. Should she move on with her life and accept the pasha’s offer? Shafer believes listeners will feel more of a connection to the character if they see her wrestle with that choice, even if just for a few bars of music.
“The Abduction From the Seraglio” is a singspiel, meaning the arias, duets and ensemble numbers are strung together with spoken dialogue. (In Utah Opera’s production, the singing will be in German and the speaking in English.)
“That makes the comedy more immediate for the audience,” Stenson said. “When they don’t have to be reliant on the titles, you can stretch the punchlines and engage the audience in the comedy.” Shafer agreed, saying that although it requires performers to shift gears vocally, “it’s kind of nice to have the freedom of dialogue.”
McBeth said he will have “the best seat in the house” for this production: He will make his Utah Opera stage debut in the speaking role of Pasha Selim. “I have a couple of degrees in voice, but I have not been onstage in ages,” he said. Despite initial misgivings, the administrator, who stands 6-foot-6 without his turban, “acquiesced and listened” to colleagues, agents and his wife, who believed him to be physically well-suited for the role. McBeth won’t be paid for his performance but promised he is “trying to really approach this in the same professional manner as everybody else. I’ve discovered my inner pasha.”
P Utah Opera presents Mozart’s “The Abduction From the Seraglio,” sung in German, with Supertitles and spoken dialogue in English.
When • Opens Saturday, 7:30 p.m.; evening performances continue May 12, 14 and 16, with a 2 p.m. matinee May 18.
Where • Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $18 to $95 ($5 more on performance day) at www.utahopera.org; $15 rush tickets available for anyone 30 and younger on performance day
Running time • Just under 3 hours, including two intermissions
In a nutshell • A charming aristocrat and his gardener set out to extricate their girlfriends from a Turkish harem, where the women have become quite popular.
Learn more • People with visual impairments are invited to a special free dress rehearsal Wednesday at 6 p.m. Education and outreach director Paula Fowler and principal coach Carol Anderson will talk about the opera, pass around props and prepared fabric samples of costumes, and share information about the set design. Braille translations and large-print synopses are available, as are headsets to hear a play-by-play description of stage action. Call Lynn at the Moran Eye Center, 801-585-2213, or The Utah Council of the Blind, 801-299-0670, or visit www.usuoeducation.org/index.php/families/events-for-individuals-with-special-needs.