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Die Entführung aus dem Serail

BERLIN
Komische Oper
6/20/04

opera news
Courtesy of Komische Oper Berlin
opera news
Courtesy of Komische Oper Berlin
Calixto Bieito's staging of Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail at Komische Oper caused a scandal even before its premiere, when Berlin's newspapers reported a scene in which a naked singer would be urinated on by a naked prostitute. A day later, the Catalan director decided to cut that scene. However, opening night on June 20 was still packed with appalling scenes that had the audience expressing its outrage loudly during the performance.

As expected by those familiar with his previous work, Bieito tranferred the story into the present. The harem became a brothel, with the Pasha as its owner and Osmin as head pimp. To make the story look as real as possible, the company hired real prostitutes who did their job inside a number of large glass show cases that were furnished in different styles, ranging from a plush "boudoir" to a black-leather-and-latex torture chamber for S&M clients, designed by Alfons Flores. No matter what was going on between the principals, one would always see couples (or threesomes) having sex in every imaginable way. Above the show cases, there were electronic screens advertising all kinds of sexual practices. Most of the Entführung's original dialogue was cut and replaced with dialogue from the movie Last Tango in Paris, which drips with vulgar, obscene language.

In the first scene, during Belmonte's entrance aria, Osmin took off his clothes completely, had sex with a prostitute and then took a shower, washing his genitals with particular care. One wondered why this kind of explicit, detailed realism that left nothing to imagination - and which had nothing to do with the story - was necessary.

The most shocking scene came during "Martern aller Arten," when Konstanze was forced to watch Osmin torture a naked prostitute to death with a large knife, cutting open her body and cutting off her nipples. At this point in the performance, people in the audience started leaving - which, in retrospect, was the smartest thing to do, as Bieto once again topped his own excesses. After the aria, the Pasha said he would order Konstanze to be raped by animals which then would be made to vomit - and he would force to her eat the vomit, etc. It didn't stop there. Belmonte became a transvestite; Konstanze and Blonde turned temporarily lesbian; Pedrillo was raped by Osmin, who urinated into a whisky glass and then made Blonde drink from it. In the end, Belmonte shot the prostitutes, Konstanze shot the Pasha, Blonde shot Osmin, and when Belmonte became the new boss of the brothel, Konstanze shot herself.

If not much else, this Entführung can claim to be the most disgusting opera production within recent memory. On paper, the concept arguably had some validity: if a director decides to transfer this piece into the present and to stage it with harsh, crude realism, a brothel could serve as some sort of equivalent to a harem. And Bieito is a skilled director who knows his craft: the images he presented here were as strong as they were disturbing and disgusting. But the crucial point is this: his staging had nothing to do with Mozart. The music and Bieito's orgy of violence and sex were like two distant universes that did not touch, even remotely. So what's the benefit of Bieito's supposed insight here? Are we supposed to discover that the lives of prostitutes and pimps are anything but nice? Why is Mozart being used to illuminate this cliché?

Even more than earlier Bieito stagings, this Entführung seemed to be begging the question of how far a director can go on the opera stage? Aren't there any limits? What's next? What are Bieito's intentions, other than to shock and cause scandals? In an interview in the program, Bieito claimed that Die Entführung is about the exploitation of women and the incapability of men to have relationships with them. Is that so? Both principal couples in Entführung do, in fact, have loving relationships and both women find ways not to be exploited. And the four characters are four very different individuals. Not for Bieito, though. He likes it the simple way: all women are victims, all men are jerks. Claiming that love is not possible, that it never works, he cut the forgiving, enlightened aspect of the Pasha's character because he "wanted to show how men really are: obsessed with violence, aggression, power and sex." This says more about Mr. Bieito than about Die Entführung. The really bad news is that Bieito will be Komische Oper's new Guest Director in Residence, starting in 2005-06, when he will stage Madama Butterfly. (How, one wonders? Possibly as a documentary on child pornography in Asia?)

The musical side, under Kirill Petrenko's odd and unfocused reading, proved to be disappointing, with the exception of brave Maria Bengtson's radiant, rich Konstanze. Her remarkable singing, including wonderfully expressive, dramatic coloratura, was not even influenced by the Pasha fingering her in her first aria (again, nothing was left to imagination) and then smelling and licking his fingers, and by the Pasha taking a shower with her during her second aria. Next best was famed actor Guntbert Warns, whose Pasha Selim was a brutal, uncontrollable and choleric sadist who claimed to long for love - and actually gave Konstanze the gun with which she shot him. Both tenors - Christoph Späth as Pedrillo and Finnur Bjarnason as Belmonte - were vocally unfit for any Berlin stage. But while Späth at least buoyed his poor singing with strong acting, Bjarnason remained a cipher dramatically. Natalie Karl's Blonde had an unpleasantly harsh quality. Bass Jens Larsen will be remembered for having been the first naked Osmin, but certainly not for his singing. The day after the premiere, Daimler-Chrysler announced that because of this production it will withdraw its sponsorship of the Komish Oper.

JOCHEN BREIHOLZ

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