The new Los Angeles Opera production of Mozart's "The Abduction From the Seraglio" has two intermissions. So at its premiere Saturday night, many used the opportunity to check cellphones for the latest breaking news of the court order reversing parts of President Trump's refugee travel ban, airport protests and all the rest. Then back to one's seat for diversion in the opportunely unreal world of late 18th-century Viennese opéra bouffe.
Had we been in Europe, it would have been different. James Robinson's production updates Mozart's operatic parody of themes that couldn't be more pertinent — East versus West, Muslim versus Christian — from a Turkish pasha's palace to the Orient Express traveling from Istanbul to Paris in the Roaring '20s.
The production was only new to L.A. Its roots are in a 1998 staging Robinson created for Wolf Trap Opera, outside Washington, D.C., and later turned into a full-fledged co-production among five U.S. opera companies. One was the now defunct Pacific Opera in Orange County, where it was mounted in 2003.
But that same summer in 1998, the Salzburg Festival in Mozart's Austrian hometown invited a Palestinian theater director to stage a revelatory "Abduction," emphasizing the deeper layers of Turkish and Islamic influence on the West. Since then, ever more extreme politicizing of Mozart's no-longer innocent work has become de rigueur for any self-respecting opera company, large or small, overseas.
The temptation is obvious. Pasha Selim, a renegade Christian who has converted to Islam, holds as prisoners a Spanish lady and two Spanish servants who had been abducted at sea by pirates. Selim attempts to woo Konstanze, rather than simply force her into his harem. Osmin, a brutal overseer in the palace, has a heavier hand with Blonde, Konstanze's maid.
It doesn't take much to turn Osmin, who delights in torture and beheading, into a caricature of a terrorist. An entertaining score can prove overly tempting for parodying the excesses of radical Islam and the excesses of operatic directorial obsession with graphic sadomasochistic sex. In a notoriously provocative Berlin production, merry Mozartean music becomes shocking accompaniment for Osmin slicing off the nipples of a prostitute.
What's to be done in these days of trigger warning and terrorist response to offense to reclaim the middle way, wherein lies the enlightenment of the "Abduction"? The opera lampoons what its original Austro-Hungarian audiences found offensive, namely the barbaric Turkish Other, only to discover that through laughter can come understanding.
Since "Abduction" is a Singspiel (an opera with spoken dialogue rather than sung recitatives), Selim is a spoken role. He teaches the Christian world the lesson of Islamic compassion, and Mozart's genius reveals this not through Selim's barely developed character but the sublime musical response of the others.
L.A. Opera defangs its "Abduction" with civility. Selim here is a bland, bored aristocrat with his private coach on the Orient Express. Osmin is his officious butler who has a bit of an attitude. Belmonte, Konstanze's Spanish nobleman lover who comes to save her, is a nerd. The setting is understated luxury.
There is the music, of course. The opera's young couples — Belmonte and Konstanze, Blonde (Konstanze's maid) and Pedrillo (Belmonte's servant) — are assigned to emerging, hard-working singers. Bass Morris Robinson is the one veteran, and his Osmin steals the show.
Robinson is not scary but funny. His costume is the best — a Western formal waistcoat and billowy Turkish pants — topped by a walrus mustache and fez. His "Upstairs Downstairs" good manners disguise a schoolboy crush on Blonde and an inner barbarian that gets the usual response of "here he goes again." Robinson may lack the lowest notes of Mozart's punishing part, but he has a way to make you think that even they have the plummy richness of the rest of his range. He makes it all work.
A delightfully smug aristocrat in the premiere of Thomas Adès' "The Exterminating Angel" in Salzburg last summer, soprano Sally Matthews appeared less a comfortable aristocrat and also less comfortable with another difficult Mozart role (not that Adès' score is a picnic). She seemed least comfortable with her showpiece aria, "Marten aller Arten." Rather than standing up to torture for the sake of true love, she is showered with presents by Selim as an ironic allusion to "Glitter and Be Gay," Leonard Bernstein's Mozartean parody in "Candide."
Light-voiced tenors Joel Prieto (Belmonte) and Brenton Ryan (Pedrillo) didn't easily project in the Pavilion. Soprano So Young Park, however, proved a dazzling, perky Blonde. The chemistry between her and Robinson brought the staging to life.
No one, including Hamish Linklater (Selim), handled the spoken lines naturally, no doubt putting extra effort into projecting in a large hall. They didn't have much to project, as a great deal of the dialogue, and thus context and relevance and provocation, of "Abduction" had been reduced to a some silly remarks and plenty of slapstick.
Go for the music. The L.A. Opera orchestra, while also not projecting particularly well, plays with grace and point. The company's music director, James Conlon, puts Mozart first, which means enough verve to keep spirits high and enough support for his singers to remind them of the durable significance of what they sing.
'The Abduction From the Seraglio'
Where: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, downtown Los Angeles
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 8 and 16; 2 p.m. Feb. 12 and 19
Info: (213) 972-8001 or www.laopera.org
Running time: 2 hours and 45 minutes