Mozart's Il Seraglio

Scottish Opera

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, 24 November 2007 3 stars

Scottish Opera's Il Seraglio:

Seldom do audiences in Scotland get a chance to hear Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail (1782) or Il Seraglio as it is known. Last performed by the Scottish Opera in 1987, this new production embraces Mozart's rich musical language as well as focusing on Gottlieb Stephanie's (librettist) central theme of love versus autocracy.

Mozart's three-act opera is the epitome of the Singspiel tradition whereby spoken dialogue takes the place of traditional recitatives in a comic opera. Mostly confined to acting in this production, the comic elements and anecdotes were superbly performed and the diction of the soloists was clear, upholding the decision to sing it in English. Its Turkish setting also offers a cultural comparison between the British and the Turks, something which directors Tobias Hoheisel and Imogen Kogge took full advantage of, particularly through the roles of Blonde (Rebecca Bottone), an English maid, and Osmin ( Dimitry Ivashchenko ), the Muslim overseer of the Harem.

There were many good aspects to this performance from the soloists, many of whom were making their UK début. Ivashchenko and Bottone particularly stood out: Bottone's delivery and phrasing were excellent as she portrayed the flirtatious and morally upstanding maid. But it was Ivashchenko who stole the show with his most beautiful, distinctive deep tone and very flexible range, especially in the lower register. Osmin is a difficult character to play, but Ivashchenko struck the right balance between acting the villain and portraying a character easily swayed by the indulgences of life.

Musically speaking, there were lovely features including the epic aria in Act II for the part of Konstanze (Julia Borchert) which formed the highlight of the performance. Borchert showed copious stamina as she tackled Mozart's ambitious writing in this aria which includes four additional obbligato instruments. Her high range, wide vibrato (though sometimes too wide) and technical expertise created accomplished coloratura gestures and a very enjoyable performance.

Scottish Opera's Il Seraglio:

Although there were many promising aspects of this production, the performance was ultimately disappointing. The cast faced an uphill struggle from the start: the audience was down in numbers from what the Scottish Opera is used to and were slow to respond with applause. Also hampering the performance was a very bare stage set. One setting was used throughout the entire opera: a large square sand area with two huge white gates across the middle and a black background. This minimal, dark setting pushed the audience to the limits of imagination and did nothing to capture the exotic, glamorous Orient of Turkey which fascinated Mozart.

Lack of ensemble on the part of the soloists also brought down the performance. Ivashchenko and Eric Laporte (Belmonte) rushed so much in their second duet of the first act that they came almost a quaver apart from the orchestra. Borchert and Laporte also encountered difficulties in scalic runs which, at times, were simply not together.

The orchestra under the baton of Jeremy Carnall coped well with the ensemble difficulties and presented a fine interpretation of Mozart's score, although at times horns, natural trumpets and baroque timpani drowned out the singers with their tutti entries.

Next season (2008-09) Scottish Opera welcomes a new Music Director, Francesco Corti. Judging from his superb performance of Madama Butterfly in June 2007, Scottish Opera has a fighting chance of returning to form.

By Mary Robb

Read our interview with Alex Reedijk, Scottish Opera's General Director, on the Five:15 project of new operas by Scottish artists such as Ian Rankin and his plans for the company's future here