The first minutes of Opera Pacific's "Abduction From the Seraglio" are promising. The overture is exactingly conducted by Jane Glover, who leads the opera without a score and who gets the orchestra to play in a convincing period-instrument style. The curtain rises to reveal a handsome replica of the Orient Express. The costumes suggest the 1920s. The cast, it is immediately apparent, is young, stylish and entertaining.
Mozart's early German comic opera concerns the fate of a Spanish noblewoman, Constanza, and her servants, who are abducted by Turkish pirates and sold to a wealthy Turkish pasha for his harem. This lavish-living Muslim potentate, forced into exile by a barbarous Western ruler, also captures that ruler's son, who happens to be the noblewoman's fiance. But this pasha is no black-mustachioed villain. He wants to win Constanza's love, not force it. Finally releasing his enemy's son, Belmonte, he tells the couple and their servants that it is wrong to compensate evil with more evil.
It is a fascinating alternate universe that Mozart's opera presents to our modern world. Though a farce, "The Abduction From the Seraglio" has moments of deep emotion, especially in the development of Constanza's character. Initially repulsed by the idea of becoming a member of the pasha's harem, she grows to respect him, and there are hints in her music that she has more substance than the bland Belmonte might appreciate. In some more radical productions, she actually returns to the pasha at the end. Thanks to Mozart's music, this is not implausible.
James Robinson's production, unveiled at the Orange County Performing Arts Center on Tuesday night, offers no such rethinking. It does little to live up to its early promise. The conceit of the pasha using a journey from Istanbul to Paris on the Orient Express as an opportunity to woo Constanza is a gag that, once it loses its novelty, comes to feel too much like lightweight British television. And that quality is all the more emphasized by making the comic couple, Pedrillo (Belmonte's valet) and Blonde (Constanza's maid), exaggerated, if amusing, British servants.
A singspiel, with spoken dialogue between the musical numbers, the work is sung in Andrew Porter's persuasive English translation, but some of the new English-language dialogue, uncredited, is commonplace. And there are further theatrical incongruities here, such as the way actor John Douglas Thompson brings a peculiarly Shakespearean eloquence to the speaking role of Pasha Selim.
The opera's centerpiece is the powerful dramatic aria "Marten Aller Arten" ("Torrents Unrelenting" in Porter's translation), in which Constanza rejects Selim's advances. With riveting conviction, and spectacular stratospheric roulades, she laughs at his power and shows us her own. It is at this point that Mozart demonstrates that real people and real issues are involved. And it is at this point that Robinson's trivial production falls apart.
Throughout the long aria, he has Selim shower Constanza with extravagant gifts -- he increasingly frustrated, she almost tempted. It is a weak attempt at irony, made weaker by Thompson's evident discomfort and by the rain of silk and pearls that seem to distract the generally sturdy soprano, Jan Grissom. Even the usually brisk Glover drags, as if letting air out of the dramatic tires.
Still, there are the occasionally nice, if slight, comic turns to be found amid the slapstick and some appealing singing. Kurt Link, a light-toned but dark-colored bass, is an unusually lighthearted Osmin, Selim's threatening overseer. As the servants, Anna Christy is a spunky, brightly sung Blonde, Jeffrey Lentz, a Jeevesian Pedrillo. Both are talented actors. But unfortunately, Pedrillo was not brightly sung. Suffering from a slight case of laryngitis, Lentz spoke the dialogue but did not sing, lip-synching to Chad Berlingheri in the pit. It didn't work, the understudy sounding as if he were singing in another room.
Belmonte was assigned to an excellent young tenor, Shawn Mathey. His is the most tiresome -- the only tiresome -- music in the opera, and he was saddled with a silly costume by the designer Anna Oliver. Still, his round, sure tone was a constant delight. Also constant was the exceptional playing that Glover got from the orchestra, performing in a pit almost at stage level.
This "Abduction" is a co-production with five other American opera companies. It was first given in Houston last year, and Robinson has already abandoned it. His assistant, Sharyn Pirtle, is credited with the Opera Pacific staging, and none of the production team, which also included set designer Allen Moyer, took bows Tuesday.
'Abduction From the Seraglio'
Where: Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: Tonight, Friday, Saturday, 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m.
Price: $20 to $125
Contact: (800) 346-7372