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
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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit