The Abduction from the Seraglio, besides being a delightful work, is a pivotal Mozart opera, a pivotal comic opera, and a pivotal German opera. But let's not get carried away: it was originally meant to be pure entertainment.
...Ummmm, let's clarify that. This perplexingly insouciant work was in fact designed to be a milestone, one of a series of commissioned works for the new German-language Imperial Opera at the court of Emperor Joseph II in Vienna. These were meant to make opera in the vernacular German, rather than in Italian, the vogue in the world's music capital. Insouciant it may have seemed, yes, in its already hackneyed storyline and exotically "oriental" setting. But Mozart left a series of letters that show how carefully he constructed his score.
Still, Mozart (and posterity) could not escape the fact that the libretto left much to be desired. It was secondhand‹make that fourth- or fifthhand. This was from an era before any kind of copyright, when librettists were almost expected to steal from other works. Gottfried Stephanie (the Younger) based this libretto on that for another opera, Bellmont und Konstanze, oder Die Entführung aus dem Serail, written a year previously. This opera, penned by C. F. Bretzner and composed by Johann Andrè, in turned borrowed from earlier Italian and English works.
The idea of writing a musical comedy about the escapades in a Turkish harem was nothing new. The Viennese had been fond of poking fun at the Ottomans ever since they were finally repelled from the gates of Vienna a century before. In Paris, as early as 1670, the Turks were memorably lampooned by Molière in his prototype musical comedy, Le Bourgeois gentilhomme.
Some of Stephanie's lyrics were hardly models of cultured German. The British musicologist Spike Hughes gleefully pointed out in the 1950s one atrocious line in the first act that originally went something like "Yet how whew! my joy faded away." Mozart, fortunately, had Stephanie change this to "Yet how soon my joy..."
Mozart's unerringly theatrical sense also helped improve The Abduction from the Seraglio. The very first scene, the introduction of the hero, Belmonte, was originally in dialogue. "Nein!" W. A. M. probably said, "let's make that a song." And he made it a charming, longing aria, a perfect way to begin an opera about a lovesick fellow. From Mozart's letters we know that the composer decided to enlarge the part of Osmin, the harem keeper, because the originator of the part, Ludwig Fischer, had a freakishly low bass voice that Mozart wanted to exploit. Osmin's principal arias and ensembles were duly lengthened beyond what appeared in the original libretto, and he was given yet another song in the third act.
Strangely, the limitations of the lyrics led Mozart to make the musical numbers in Abduction longer, rather than shorter than they would be in his later, more vividly theatrical comic operas, The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, even The Magic Flute. Take a look, for example, at the introduction of the heroine, Konstanze, in Act II. She has twenty minutes of very difficult music‹a recitative and two arias, separated by only a bit of dialogue. The second of these two arias, "Marten aller Arten" ("Tortures of All Sorts"), with its long orchestral introduction, seems to have wandered into the opera from a concert hall. What it's doing
in a supposedly light singspiel is anyone's guess.
Let's talk about the term singspiel, shall we? It means a play with songs, in the native (German) language. When the enlightened Joseph II commissioned them, he might have thought he would get something that was, indeed, sung throughout. If it was in the style of an Italian opera of the day, that meant arias set off by recitative (basically sung dialogue accompanied sporadically by a harpsichord).
That's not quite what he got from Mozart. The dialogue was still there. There was really nothing new about the idea of a German singspiel in the 1780s‹it was really just another name for a wide variety of comedies with dialogue and songs that were popular all over Europe. In time, these forms would metamorphose into opera buffa (principally in Italy), with sung recitative, or what became operetta, always with dialogue. Joseph II's desire for a German opera became reality in 1778, when he established a company of German-speaking singers at the Burgtheater, which he called the National-Singspiel. The dramatic counterpart exists to this day as the Burgtheater company, the leading German-language theater, but the National-Singspiel only lasted five years. Nevertheless, the desire for comic and fantastic German-language musical works persisted at theatres outside the court, for example at the then-suburban Theater an der Wien. There, in 1791, the Viennese saw Mozart's greatest singspiel, Die Zauberflöte ("The Magic Flute"). But the singspiel format didn't give Mozart (at this stage) the luxury of creating dramatic situations and advancing the plot through music, as he would just a few months later in The Marriage of Figaro. The Abduction arias for the most part convey feelings and emotions, but they do this with a marvelous freshness, especially in the numbers for the tenor Belmonte, like his glorious first-act "wie ängstlich!"
The rather flimsy libretto has also caused directors to come up with all sorts of remedies to keep audiences entertained. The Turks have been transformed into Palestinians. In a curious staging for the Stuttgart Opera in 1998, the director Hans Neuenfels doubled the roles, with a speaking Belmonte and a singing Belmonte, two Osmins, and so on. This production is confusing, but interesting (and can be seen in a new Naxos/Arthaus-Musik DVD 100179).
If one wants Middle-East merriment, Rossini's Turkish operas have more amusing libretti‹and in these everybody sings. In The Abduction, it's curious that the Pasha Selim doesn't. At one point he was supposed to, but Mozart was apparently wary of having three tenors in this opera. Selim's wise decision at the end of the opera, where he doesn't kill‹ and sets free‹the son of his mortal enemy, might have sounded superb in an aria. Instead there is a final vaudeville (this time meaning a succession of individual verses of a song, with the refrain picked up by the chorus). Osmin, who is not satisfied with his employer's decision, instead sings an angry variant and storms off the stage. With The Abduction, you take the wonderful with the less so. After all, the composer was only 25 when he was commissioned to write it. He was not quite an operatic beginner‹some twelve stage works had preceded this one. But it is fascinating to see how this delightful work anticipates his later, operas.