Mention Mozart’s operas and possibly four spring to mind immediately – The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, Cosi fan tutte and The Magic Flute – but there others not least La clemenza di Tito, which like The Magic Flute, was written in the last months of the composer’s life in 1791.
But going back a decade earlier, prior to the operas I’ve listed, there is The Abduction from the Seraglio, first performed at Vienna’s Burgtheater on July 16, 1782. While it may fall into the category of Singspiel, or ‘play with songs’, in Mozart’s hands there is more to it than that.
Even if a little vague, we can take the setting as somewhere in Turkey, in and around the palace of Pasha Selim, where the Pasha, a spoken role, has incarcerated a Spanish lady, Constanze, her English maid, Blonde and Pedrillo, servant to Spanish nobleman, Belmonte. Managing to evade the kidnapping, Belmonte comes to the others’ rescue.
There is another main character – Osmin, keeper of the Pasha’s harem. While the Pasha has fallen for Constanze, Osmin has an eye on Blonde. Both ladies find their respective suitors repellent but all ends happily even if Belmonte’s attempts at liberation are thwarted. The Pasha, who is actually Spanish by birth, magnanimously releases his captives much to the irritation of the lascivious Osmin.
But why am I mentioning The Seraglio at this juncture? Well, Irish National Opera’s plan to stage it last May was dashed by the Covid-19 lockdown, but all is not lost as the undaunted INO is currently streaming its production in eight episodes on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 6pm on irishnationalopera.ie
Conducted by Peter Whelan and directed by Caitríona McLaughlin, the cast includes Claudia Boyle, Sarah Power, Dean Power, Andrew Gavin and Wojtek Gierlach with the Irish Chamber Orchestra.
Mozart wrote the piece in Vienna whither he had been summoned by his employer, the Prince Archbishop of Salzburg, Hieronymous Colloredo, then visiting his ailing father in the Austrian capital. Relations between prelate and musician were less than cordial and an altercation between them in Vienna led to Mozart’s dismissal. According to the composer, Colloredo called him “rascal, scoundrel and conceited ass”.
Taking lodgings with the Weber family whom he had previously met in Mannheim, and whose daughter Constanze he would marry, Mozart stayed in Vienna where his worth, as pianist and composer, was highly regarded.
Gottlieb Stephanie, stage director of the German opera house in Vienna, gave him the libretto of The Seraglio, which he (Stephanie) had adapted from a play – Belmont und Constanze – by Leipzig-born Christoph Bretzner. The delighted Mozart completed his score with all speed.
Well received, The Seraglio soon established itself throughout Austria and Germany as well as being produced in Amsterdam, Budapest, Prague and Warsaw during Mozart’s short lifetime.
Having attended its première, Emperor Joseph II was a little ambivalent saying to Mozart: “Too beautiful for our ears, and an enormous number of notes, my dear Mozart.”
Quietly confident, the composer replied: “Only as many as are needed, your Majesty.”