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Monday, December 09, 2019

Berkshire Abduction

From the Vault Dept.: Berkshire Opera was founded by Rex Hearn in 1985; with a few changes of venue, the company lasted until 2008. It was re-started in 2016 under completely different artistic management. Here’s a trip some thirty years back in time to re-visit a production of a Mozart opera.


BERKSHIRE OPERA GENERAL DIRECTOR Rex Hearn finished his welcoming words to last night’s performance of Mozart’s “The Abduction from the Seraglio” and dashed up the aisle of the Cranwell Opera House, stirring a fresh breeze in the still air.

Cranwell Resort, Lenox Mass.
It’s a metaphor for what he’s brought opera in the Berkshires these last few summers: a fresh breeze to enliven the classics of the repertory. This production only confirms what’s already been established.

The piece is skillfully placed in the odd little theater (it’s a former chapel), set by designer Kennon Rothchild in a whimsically-drawn Turkey draped in silks and pastel. The orchestra, led by Amy Kaiser, has never sounded better, and the cast is nicely chosen for this particular work.

Some fussy characteristics of the story make it a challenge to pull off. What promises to be a fast-paced tale of abduction and intrigue turns instead to the overrated question of virtue, leaving us wondering only who’s doing the chasing and who’s being chaste.

Here’s the deal: lovely Constanza and Blonde, her maid, were kidnapped by pirates and sold into the services of Pasha Selim. Who, harem notwithstanding, has his eye on Constanza. She’s pining for boyfriend Belmonte, and the opera begins with his arrival to rescue the prisoners.

Director Joseph Bascetta cultivated what could be a pretty static business into a fascinating piece of stagecraft, supported by a cast that has to switch from some of the world’s hardest singing to out-and-out acting-with-dialogue.

And it all fits in nicely with the characterization suggested by the music. Starting with Blonde, sung by Jan Juline Leeds. Like the P.G. Wodehouse character who “never succeeded in achieving that demure aloofness which is the hallmark of the well-trained maid,” Leeds’ Blonde is a picture of sassiness.

Her voice is magnificent and her comic ability – especially in her scene with the overbearing Osmin, the Pasha’s nasty harem-master, as she persuades him with charming violence that only gentleness will win her heart.

There’s another problem: Pedrillo, servant to Belmonte, who also was aboard that captured ship and who actually has a thing going with Blonde. Zestfully sung by Brian Scott, he has a bright-eyed feistiness realized in action and in the merry melodies Mozart gives him.

A tableaux of the four lovers sums up in attitude what’s suggested throughout. There are Blonde and Pedrillo with their arms flung round one another; there are Constanza and Belmonte in a pose of dignified restraint.

Susan Carter-Fricks overcomes two formidable handicaps to turn in a warm, accomplished performance as Constanza. The first was short notice: she came in two weeks before the opening, and had to un-learn it in German to sing the Andrew Porter translation. Second is the inert nature of her songs. While describing the goings-on “deep within my suff’ring heart,” she can do little in the way of stage action. Energy turns inward, and it’s a tribute to her richly-colored voice that she makes so effective a scene of it.

Tenor James Longacre looks every inch the hero as he strides in to make his rescue, and he, too, is handed a bastard of an aria with what’s translated as “Beats My Ever-Loving Heart.” It’s complicated enough to be a concerto movement, and he delivers it accordingly.

The choice role is villain Osmin, whom Richard Crist makes both amusing and amusingly overbearing. Except for those few moments when the vocal line descends into subterranean bassness, he brought a terrific command to the machine-gun singing.

Pasha Selim is a speaking role which David Rae Smith rendered absolutely convincingly, just a touch of the Charlton Heston in there.

When an opera company can make a beautiful but untheatrical piece like this one into a compelling experience, you know you’re in the presence of something special. Performances continue through Aug. 4.

– Schenectady Daily Gazette, 27 July 1990

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