After the critical and popular success of Gianni Schicci last season, artistic director Carla Hübner and the In Series commissioned two-time Helen Hayes nominee Bari Biern to adapt the original libretto by J. Gottlieb Stephanie, Jr. (who adapted his libretto from a book by C.F. Bretzner).
Originally the story of a powerful Turkish pasha who abducted a woman into his harem, Biern has moved the action out to the Wild West. Real-life lawman Judge Roy Bean was obsessed with English actress Lillie Langtry. Historically, they never met, but in this show, Langtry is the unfortunate abductee and the story centers on her love Belmont’s attempts to get her back.
This is a ‘Singspiel’ with more in common with our modern musicals than earlier epic operas. Dialogue is spoken between self-contained songs and the libretto was originally in German to be accessible to the masses. Like most comic opera of the time, it owes much to Commedia Dell’arte and Biern has kept to the tradition. That may sound dignified, but the characters are really just a bunch of clowns, sacrificing nuance for belly laughs and depth of character for hilarious caricature.
There’s nothing funny about the music though. Mozart borrowed from the Turkish tradition to create a score of fast, beautiful and famous pieces. The jubilant finale especially (“Judge Roy Bean is in his Glory” in this production) has been often performed. The vocal parts are some of the most challenging Mozart ever wrote. Roles span the entire range of the human voice.
The cast and musicians are more than up to the challenge. Heather Bingham (Lillie Langtry) has a clear, resonant soprano that is almost too good for the fun she makes of her character on the opening “Gone is Joy” and the aria “I Was Happy, Oh, so Happy.” Joseph Haughton (Belmont) is a powerful tenor who busts the roof off the intimate space on his opening, “At Last I may have found you.” Nephi Sanchez (Pedrillo) can match him as a bumbling servant on his solos like, “On to Battle! On to Glory” involving a number of cancan dancers.
Jeffrey Tarr (Osmund) is a larger-than-life bass who has the challenge of singing the lowest notes it is possible to sing and shines on a couple of hilarious songs, “You young hounds are always howlin’” and “I’m so happy that I’m singin’.” I’ve never heard yodeling opera before. CarrieAnne Winter (Blondie) has a lovely soprano as well and great comic timing, especially on “Try kindness and gentility” which involves a significant number of bloomers.
The highlights though are the duets, trios and quartets of the piece. Director Tom Mallan did a fabulous job staging the complicated action to match the vocal acrobatics, particularly on “March! March! March!” as Osmund, Belmont, and Pedrillo try to get each other out of town, and the transcendental “Ach! Mein Leben (Oh, my beloved)” As one character says:”She’s so happy, she’s singing German.”
The ensemble really gets into the clowning around, grinning from ear to ear and singing beautifully, and it was pretty funny to see a bawdy dance done to Mozart. Choreographer Angelisa Gillyard must have had a marvelous time creating these dances. The ensemble dresses as both cowboys and saloon girls and the costumes in general involve a great deal of satin, lace, feathers, and plaid by Sehar Peerzada.
Music Director and conductor Stanley Thurston comes out in a 10-gallon hat and jeans. He and his musicians do justice to Mozart’s score, a feat especially because there is nowhere to hide in a 5-person orchestra. Jonathan Yanik was especially impressive on at least four different instruments.
The action takes place on the porch of the Langtry saloon and musicians sit behind swing doors and big windows in the saloon proper. Other set pieces are walked on as needed, like cactus or a hanging rope. Jonathan Hudspeth did a great job with the rough look of a make-believe saloon.
The In Series’ Abduction from the Seraglio will wow you with gorgeous music, great singing, and will keep you laughing…hard!
Running time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.