McVicar knows his audience well, in this stylish bonbon of a production. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith
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David McVicar’s new production of Mozart’s first successful opera is a vision innocent of its own Orientalism

Die Entführung aus dem Serail, or The Abduction from the Seraglio, hits the spot when staged at Glyndebourne.

The curtain rising on David McVicar’s new production of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail reveals a set that could have been designed by Lord Frederic Leighton. This is the idealised exotic East as viewed through Western eyes: shady loggias, the sea glimpsed distantly through intricate latticework screens, formal gardens filled with brightly-clothed children.

It’s a vision innocent of its own Orientalism, and one that echoes the gleeful exoticism of Mozart’s youthful score, with its jangling percussion and primary-coloured wind and brass. There’s a darker, more cynical take to be had on this tricky opera, heavy with moral absolutes, but on a summer evening in Glyndebourne’s own glorious gardens, this is the version that hits the spot.

McVicar knows his audience well, and this stylish bonbon of a production – beautifully designed by Vicki Mortimer and lit by Paule Constable – taps into the same visual vein that so delighted in his now-classic Glyndebourne Giulio Cesare. Moving screens and panels form and reform in endless permutations, keeping a long evening of music dramatically fluid and lithe, fresh with new spaces to enjoy and new views to explore in Pasha Selim’s gorgeous summer residence.

The acres of dialogue so often cut from this singspiel are reinstated, changing the pace of the piece for the better. Entführung is often criticised for lacking the psychological depth of the composer’s later works, and here music that simply wasn’t intended to propel drama is allowed simply to illustrate and amplify, generating some delicious comic set-pieces as well as some moments of emotive stillness. McVicar is aided by a strong ensemble cast, delivering the slightly stilted dialogue with as much energetic conviction as the arias.

Supplying the necessary patrician tragedy and gravitas are Edgaras Montvidas (Belmonte) and Sally Matthews (Konstanze) – young lovers with an agile line in coloratura. Konstanze is a good role for Matthews, giving full scope to her emotional intensity, and showcasing the strong points of her technique while forgiving some of its odder quirks. Memories of the darkened vowels and slightly swallowed delivery we so often hear in the concert hall are banished by a ferociously poised “Martern alle artern”. Montvidas cuts a heroic figure, playing nicely off Breden Gunnell’s Pedrillo in the comic sections, while bringing us back to an altogether more lyrical sincerity with his arias.

While Gunnell gives hints of real beauty in his decoy Moorish song, his is a Pedrillo played skilfully for laughs, sung with character to the fore. He’s almost outdone for presence, however, by Mari Eriksmoen’s fiery Blonde – the outspoken Englishwoman we truly believe is subjugated by no man. Vocally all glittering brilliance and precision in this, her Glyndebourne debut, it’s dramatically that she really comes into her own, sparring vividly with Tobias Kehrer’s Osmin, and delivering an unforgettable lesson in gender equality.

If there’s a star here, though, it’s unquestionably Kehrer – another debut artist, and a basso profondo whose beast of a voice and comic instincts make for a potent pairing and an unusually human villain. His Act I spat with Pedrillo is a highlight, his expressivity and tonal variety set against a charming and ingenious horticultural conceit from McVicar. Robin Ticciati and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment romp their way through this unusual score, and it’s particularly lovely to hear the orchestra’s wind and brass sections so extensively in this unusually colourful and texturally varied music.

Michael Grandage’s 2012 Figaro for Glyndebourne had the music on its side but lacked charm, while the festival’s 2014 Finta Giardiniera looked stylish but couldn’t muster enough dramatic friction with this early score. In David McVicar’s Entführung, Glyndebourne finally have a five-star Mozart – a production whose visuals are every bit the equal of its aural pleasures. This is a show we’ll be seeing a lot more of in future seasons.

Die Entführung aus dem Serail was on at Glyndebourne, Saturday 13 June, 2015

 

BBC/Chris Christodoulou
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Proms 2016: Violinist Ray Chen was the star of a varied show

The orchestra soaked up his energy in Bruch's first violin concerto to end on a triumphal note. 

Music matters, but so does its execution. This was the lesson of a BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus programme which combined both a premiere of a composition and a young violinist’s first performance at the Proms. 

The concert, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, opened with Tchaikovsky’s symphonic fantasy The Tempest, a lesser-known sibling to his Romeo and Juliet overture. The orchestra got off to a fidgety start, with some delayed entries, but fell into line in time for the frenetic chromatic runs that drive the piece. The end, a muted pizzicato, was suitably dramatic. 

Another nature-inspired piece followed – Anthony Payne’s composition for chorus and orchestra, Of Land, Sea and Sky. Payne drew on his memory of watching of white horses appearing to run across water, as well as other visual illusions. At the world premiere, the piece began promisingly. The chorus rolled back and forth slowly over scurrying strings with an eerie singing of “horses”. But the piece seemed to sink in the middle, and not even the curiosity of spoken word verse was enough to get the sinister mood back. 

No doubt much of the audience were drawn to this programme by the promise of Bruch violin concerto no. 1, but it was Ray Chen’s playing that proved to be most magnetic. The young Taiwanese-Australian soloist steered clear of melodrama in favour of a clean and animated sound. More subtle was his attention to the orchestra. The performance moved from furious cadenza to swelling sound, as if all players shared the same chain of thought. Between movements, someone coughed. I hated them. 

Ray Chen in performance. Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Chen’s playing had many audience members on their feet, and only an encore appeased them. It was his first time at the Proms, but he'll be back. 

The orchestra seemed to retain some of his energy for Vaughan Williams’ Toward the Unknown Region. Composed between 1904 and 1906, this is a setting of lines by the US poet Walt Whitman on death, and the idea of rebirth.

The orchestra and chorus blended beautifully in the delicate, dark opening. By the end, this had transformed into a triumphal arc of sound, in keeping with the joyful optimism of Whitman’s final verse: “We float/In Time and Space.” 

This movement from hesitancy to confident march seemed in many ways to capture the spirit of the concert. The programme had something for everyone. But it was Chen’s commanding performance that defined it.