Stephanie & Mozart
English Touring Opera
Opera House, Buxton, and touring to Durham and other venues
11 October 2019: 2hr 45min
This is the piece of which Emperor Josef II reportedly said there were "too many notes" – at least as represented in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus.
What he actually said should probably be translated as "an awful lot of notes", or "a vast amount of music", which is pretty accurate. It’s a story where very little happens but there are wonderful things in the score.
Josef might have been disappointed in the lack of action. He was much more keen on "Singspiel" (a play with music, the 18th century equivalent of light opera or musicals, which is what this is) than all-sung opera, with its elaborate ensemble numbers and reflective arias.
The story is almost a cliche of its time: hero seeks and must set free a beautiful girl held captive by a big, bad villain. Except here there are two heroes and two pretty girls – the noble Belmonte and his sidekick Pedrillo, seeking lost loves Konstanze and Blonde, respectively, both held in the harem of Pasha Selim (who rather fancies adding Konstanze to his collection of wives) and guarded by Osmin (with similar designs on Blonde).
The "abduction", or escape attempt, comes unstuck, but it turns out that the Muslim Selim has a bigger concept of honour and mercy than the European and therefore "Christian" would-be escapees, and he finally sets them free anyway.
In presenting the story there’s room for fun, which director Stephen Medcalf and his cast do in near-pantomimic style, and which the audience (witnessing it in English and with English surtitles on screen just in case they’re hard of hearing) much enjoy.
In that multitude of notes, Mozart supplies plenty of lovely music and not a few operatic ensemble pieces –indeed the major part of the second Act (broken here with the interval at the point where Pedrillo is about to get Osmin drunk) consists simply of two arias by Blonde, framing a central section made up of two by Konstanze.
It’s at this point we realise that one of the concepts brought to the piece by Medcalf and designer Adam Wiltshire is that the harem is a collection of caged songbirds: it’s represented by two metal frameworks, closed at the top, and with mirrors to make the modest number of human resources available to English Touring Opera (just two additional girls and two guys) represent a crowd.
That’s one side of a two-part set placed on a central revolve, which does its job very well. The need to get eight voices on stage for choruses brings the occasional incongruity (near the beginning Pedrillo, having said he’ll "quickly hide", comes right back on to sing in one of them), but it’s a price you pay for opera on this scale.
The principals do a fine job: Richard Pinkstone (Pedrillo) is a strong singer with a good comic gift; John-Colyn Gyeantey brings tenderness to his tenor role, and Matthew Stiff (Osmin) reaches for the low notes effectively.
The girls (Lucy Hall as Konstanze and Nazan Fikret as Blonde) are very good, especially once warmed up for that feast of vocal art in the second Act. Alex Andreou delivers the spoken role of Pasha Selim with studied gravity. John Andrews’ conducting gives us pleasant variety of tempo and generous helpings of "Turkish" colour from the pit.