About the Opera, The Abduction from the Seraglio

On March 16, 1781, Mozart arrived in Vienna, his home base for the next ten years. It was not his first visit – years before, he had traveled to the Austrian capital as a wunderkind, dazzling its Hapsburg rulers with his amazing piano technique. Yet the royal family was skeptical of his abilities as a composer. Empress Maria Theresa had privately communicated her doubts over Mozart’s ability as a potential kapellmeister to her son Archduke Ferdinand, then governor of Lombardy. One suspects she had the same conversation with her other son, Leopold, one-time Grand Duke of Tuscany, whom the young Wolfgang had once petitioned – unsuccessfully – for a job. Indeed, some members of the Austrian power structure were so biased against Germanic composers that Leopold’s wife, Maria Luisa, would later dismiss Mozart’s opera La clemenza di Tito as porcheria tedesca – German trash. The Hapsburgs, crucial to the development of 18th-century opera seria, had their hands deep within the peninsula and preferred their composers to be Italian. 

But by the time of Mozart’s arrival, Maria Theresa was dead, leaving her first son Joseph in charge. The new emperor was interested in music and took a personal role in running the court theaters. The now-adult Wolfgang Amadeus thought he could easily expect a position in the Viennese musical scene, especially after his extremely successful premiere of Idomeneo earlier that year in Munich. There was one problem: the composer was still in the service of Salzburg’s prince archbishop, Count Hieronymus Colloredo, and his whole reason for being in Vienna was to serve his master, who had temporarily transplanted the Salzburg court. After a lengthy excused absence (with pay) to produce Idomeneo, Mozart was expected to resume his duties in the Colloredo household, in a position slightly higher than the cooks, but below the valets. The archbishop relished trotting out his talented virtuoso to enhance his own reputation, but the composer burned at the indignity of having to wait in the antechamber until summoned to perform, a common practice of the day. 

When not in Colloerdo’s service, Mozart made every attempt to attract the emperor’s ear, which was not an easy task. The twice-widowed Joseph rarely held social functions, and musical life in Vienna tended to play out in private homes, often with the emperor in attendance. So Mozart hit the salon circuit in hopes of making a connection, which often conflicted with his paid duties (his contract forbade public performances). As Colloredo prepared to return to Salzburg, Mozart scrambled to find any excuse to extend his stay in Vienna (again, with pay), but one of the archbishop’s servants set a trap. A footman argued that instead of using the same old excuse (i.e. collecting outstanding lesson fees), Mozart could simply say that he was unable to secure a coach seat, at that time in high demand. When the lie was exposed, a highly irregular shouting match between the brash young man and his royal benefactor ensued. Mozart submitted his resignation, but the prince’s secretary, Count Arco, made every attempt to smooth over the situation out of loyalty to Mozart’s father, Leopold (who had himself served the Salzburg court for years, holding a variety of jobs). Nonetheless, Arco’s own rage exploded when he discovered a letter to the archbishop detailing Arco’s efforts on Mozart’s behalf, which were not entirely in line with courtly protocol. This led to Mozart’s now-notorious expulsion, punctuated by a parting kick-in-the-rear. 

Back in Salzburg, Wolfgang’s domineering father could not have been pleased as he received this distressing news from Vienna – he was, after all, still in charge of Wolfgang’s finances, issuing him an “allowance” as the need arose – and feared penury for both of them (or so he would say). Fueled by slanderous (and often incorrect) letters from his friends in Vienna, Papa Mozart fired off a series of deprecating missives, assailing his son’s character. With newly found maturity, the younger Mozart defended his actions, and in spite of his joblessness, still managed to send home a little money, though he made it clear this would not continue indefinitely. Responding to “the voice of nature” as much as genuine affection, he was about to take a wife. Constanze Weber was not his father’s first choice, as the Weber sisters had a somewhat tattered reputation and were accompanied by a conniving and disagreeable mother, Caecilia Weber (who, for example, demanded that Mozart sign a sort of pre-nuptial agreement with cash penalties should he back out of the marriage). As Mozart had craved from the day he left Munich, the filial bonds between controlling parent and obedient son were finally broken when he married Constanze without his father’s consent (which arrived begrudgingly one day after the ceremony). 

But where would the young composer find work? Emperor Joseph’s permanent music staff was full circa 1781 (including the well-known composers Antonio Salieri and Christoph Willibald Gluck) with death or resignation the only ways that a job could open up (which didn’t occur until 1788). Still, it wasn’t as though Mozart had gone completely unnoticed. For several years, the emperor had been running a German opera company, both to generate national pride and to defray the expense of Italian singers. This had been tried before, but without lasting success (as seen in the ill-fortune of Reinhard Keiser’s Hamburg Opera House circa King Croesus in the early 18th century). Italian opera seria simply had become too popular in Germany, and composers who wrote in the Italian style found plentiful work in the numerous German principalities. Though German singspiel would develop into a legitimate art form by the end of the century, its loose early principals often led to absurd and dramatically weak plots, sometimes merely commedia dell’arte skits with musical interludes. Between the demise of the Hamburg Opera (1738) and the end of the Seven Years War (1763), opera sung in German produced only sporadic, unorganized experiments. Unlike France and Italy, Germany lacked a conservatory system that could yield a cohesive style for both composition and performance. Thankfully, the quality of German literature in the plays of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and the works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (also an opera librettist) gave rise to melodrama in the native language. Though ruled by the spoken word, the hybrid genre of melodrama was nonetheless just a heartbeat away from true singspiel.  

Even after the National Theater was established in 1778, 33 out of the 48 operas performed during its short five-year history were simply Italian and French works in German translation [although the august Salieri would be called upon to contribute to the repertoire, producing the “Lustspiel” Der Rauchfangkehrer (The Chimney Sweep) in 1781]. Johann Gottlieb Stephanie ran the theater, and it may have been his past association with Mozart that paved the way for a commission. As was the custom, the impresario appropriated an extant libretto, Belmont und Konstanze, that had been written by Christoph Friedrich Bretzner and previously set to music by Johann André. (This was not uncommon – Bretzner’s libretto would be set again for a Stuttgart premiere with music by Christian Ludwig Dieter in 1784, among other adaptations.) 

Mozart’s new opera was intended to be part of the celebrations surrounding a state visit by Russian crown prince Paul Petrovich (son of Catherine the Great) and his wife. As the premiere approached, however, the program began to change, to Mozart’s distress. Gluck’s health had been waning, and it was decided to recognize his lifetime achievements by remounting three of his most popular works. Mozart was instead engaged, as in the past, as a mere performer, providing sideshow entertainment for the assembled royalty. (In one notable incident, Mozart was compelled to compete on the keyboard with Muzio Clementi before the emperor and the Russian crown princess Maria Fedorovna.) The Abduction from the Seraglio (Die Entführung aus dem Serail), as the opera was now titled to distance it from its predecessor (Bretzner having accused Mozart of plagiarism), was now programmed later in the season. On the positive side, the extra time gave the composer a leisurely pace to craft his opera, and he and Stephanie made considerable changes to the libretto. Bretzner’s four acts were reduced to three, Pedrillo’s voice was switched to a tenor while Osmin became a bass, women were added to the chorus and the denouement was adjusted to emphasize Selim’s act of Christian mercy by enhancing his Spanish-Catholic background (in the original, the pasha countermands his execution order when he learns Belmonte is his own long-lost son). 

In the construction of Abduction, Mozart took full advantage of the loose formal requirements of singspiel, which was, in its day, more akin to a Broadway musical than a strict opera seria. Hoping to show off his abilities as a composer of the more distinguished art form, he employs a graver style for the story’s somber moments. Konstanze’s lengthy aria “Traurigkeit ward mir zum Lose” is preceded by accompanied recitative, as is the duet Konstanze and Belmonte sing when they face death together (“Meinetwegen sollst du sterben!”) and Belmonte’s love song “O wie ängstlich.” Similarly, two others (Belmonte’s devotional number “Ich baue ganz auf deine Stärke” and Konstanze’s testament to constancy “Martern aller Arten”) are preceded by extensive introductory orchestral ritornelli, almost taking the form of a concert aria. Mozart was clearly trying to prove that German opera could be taken seriously. 

“Oriental” themes flourished throughout the 18th century in Vienna, where its residents enjoyed their croissant (literally “crescent,” a symbol of the Ottoman Empire) with their Turkish coffee. Several themes typify exotic opera of this era: the comic and the grotesque (embodied by the foreign characters), religious differences, liberty (the lack thereof) and sexual license. The seductive mystery of the harem, coupled with a violent military history that went back  

to the Crusades, led Europeans to believe the “infidels” were more amorous, indulgent and impulsive than themselves. Imagined exoticism drew a veil between the two cultures – setting our current production on the Orient Express, a “theater on wheels” running from Istanbul to Paris, provides an apt parallel to another era when European fascination with the “exotic” Orient ran high. 

Mozart’s opera joined a myriad of Oriental-themed works, which had become even more popular with Viennese audiences as they approached the centenary of the famous siege in 1683 when the Turks bombarded the city gates. Exotic settings and characters can  

be found throughout Europe as early as 1686 in Johann Wolfgang Franck’s Cara Mustapha (to a text by Croesus-librettist Lukas von Bostel) with Mahumeth (1696) by Keiser, Bajazet (1735) by Antonio Vivaldi, Tamerlano by George Frideric Handel and Solimano (1753) by Hasse to follow. Later in Vienna Gluck’s La rencontre imprévue (1763), Grétry’s Zémire et Azor (1771) and Giovanni Paisiello’s L’arabo cortese (1769) and La Dardané (1772) revisited the “Oriental” theme. Mozart’s first attempt at exotic singspiel, Zaide (Das Serail), followed this trend, and is the work he had brought to Vienna to show to Stephanie. Though Zaide was not produced, it shows Mozart’s interest in “Oriental” subjects. For instance, the figure of the “noble Turk” that Mozart used, instead of a stereotypical barbarian, was at that time becoming a familiar archetype in operas, a development linked to the Ottoman empire’s diminishing power. Mozart’s Abduction was fashioned to the apex of public taste, complete with (European-born) Pasha Selim’s clement act of forgiveness, juxtaposed with Osmin’s comically unwavering lack of couth: the perfect expression of Emperor Joseph’s enlightened government.  

Like some (but not all) composers of the day, Mozart was careful to include some türkische Musik as well. Though the Eurocentric melodies are hardly authentic, Mozart used a number of techniques to evoke the exoticism of the “Oriental” setting: from the simple tunes of alternating thirds in Osmin’s rage-filled music, to Moorish tendencies in Pedrillo’s pizzicato troubadour romance “In Mohrenland,” to the quick pace, simple harmony and repeating accompaniment in the duet “Vivat Bacchus.” Most prominent is the Janissary percussion (cymbals, triangle and bass drum often accented by the piccolo) employed in the overture, Act I chorus and Act III finale. Other aspects of the “Turkish” style include the use of grace notes, rapid contrasts between major and minor keys, distinctive chromatic intervals, duple meters and a lively tempo. These “exotic” elements remained an important part of Mozart’s style: in “Mozart in Turkey” (Cambridge Opera Journal, 12, 3, 219–235), Benjamin Perl identifies Turkish idioms in Lucio Silla (1773), the finale of the fifth violin concerto (1779), the alla turca movement in the piano sonata in a major (1783), Monostatos’ aria “Alles fühlt der Liebe Freuden” from Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute; 1791) and even makes a case for Don Giovanni’s aria “Fin ch’han dal vino” (1787), the Don’s licentiousness compared to that of a harem-keeping middle-eastern with his underling, Leporello, guardian of its contents (symbolized by the catalogo of conquests).  

Abduction’s libretto was developed out of many Orient-themed literary sources, from love and rescue motifs found in Boccaccio’s Il Decamerone to Jean-François Marmontel’s Contes moraux (1761), Isaac Bickerstaff’s The Sultan, or A Peep into the Seraglio (1775) and Charles Dibdin’s The Captive (1769). Marmontel’s tale focuses on Soliman ii, the mystery of the seraglio and its ruler’s eventual preference for the nez à la Roxelane, which belongs to an uppity young harem girl who eventually becomes sultana as she brings forth and softens his emotionalism. The details were adapted by Frenchman Charles-Simon Favart into an opéra comique libretto in 1761 and into the opera Soliman den andraeller De tre sultaninnorna (1789) by Joseph Martin Kraus. Mozart’s student, Franz Xaver Süssmayr would come to write an opera on this subject in 1799. Bickerstaff’s play and subsequent opera features a tyrannical eunuch by the name of Osmyn and a blonde, British slave girl; and The Captive features a rescue motif (and was also set to music in the 1777 opera La schiava liberata). Another more recent discovery is the possible connection to an obscure French play Les époux esclaves ou Bastien et Bastienne à Alger (1755) that includes shipwrecked Spanish lovers, a plot to escape, a Muslim ruler and servant, and a magnanimous ending. 

In spite of a convoluted literary heritage, an overwhelming number of arias and an overabundance of notes (at least, according to the motion picture Amadeus), The Abduction from the Seraglio was an instant success with the public, if not the emperor – it became the most frequently performed of Mozart’s operas during his lifetime, touring Germany and the rest of Europe to great acclaim. The fate of the National Theater was not so rosy, however, as intrigue festered inside the court. With only three other lasting works to its credit (Ignaz Umlauf’s Die Bergknappen and Die pücefarbenen Schuhe and later Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf’s Der Apotheker und der Doktor), singspiel fell out of favor. The Italians were soon reinstated, thanks in part to the machinations of the nobility. Untested in the realm of opera buffa, Mozart now found himself in a precarious position, and his next commission for a full-length opera at the Burgtheater did not come for another four years. Yet Abduction would not be the composer’s last German opera – he went on to write the one-act Der Schauspieldirektor (The Impresario; again to text by Stephanie) in 1786 for a command performance (and another contest, this time with Salieri) at Schönbrunn Palace, and Die Zauberflöte for Emanuel Schikaneder’s suburban Theater auf der Wieden in the last year of the composer’s life. It is interesting to contemplate what Mozart might have contributed to the development of German grand opera, had he lived into the early decades of the 19th century. 


Don’t miss out on Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio when hits the Ordway stage for 5 performances, September 26- October 4, 2020.

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