The Abduction from the Seraglio, or the Art of Synthesis

Xl_enlevement-au-serail-en © DR

At the age of 24, just freed from his tyrannical employer, Archbishop Colloredo, Mozart set off to win over the Viennese public by realizing his dream of writing a grand opera in German that would rival Italian opera. The Abduction from the Seraglio was a triumph from its opening night, becoming Mozart’s most popular work in his lifetime. Nothing seemed able to slow the success of this singspiel, which travelled all over Germany before continuing its triumphal career in Europe. The famous comment attributed to Emperor Joseph II on the night of the premiere is often quoted: “Too lovely for our ears, and far too many notes, my dear Mozart!”. Behind the paradox of the formula hides the relevance of early analysis. The work “overflows” all limits that should have contained it, putting it squarely in the context of the cultural policy of Joseph II, who was eager to promote a national art.  Right from the brilliant, unusual overture, the listener is swept away by an extraordinarily rich orchestration that announces the start of a new musical era. Starting from a conventional “turquerie” with an already widely exploited subject, Mozart manages to create a veritable philosophical fable. The rules of “singspiel,” a short, light opera, are transcended in order to achieve a harmonious alliance between comic and tragic, “opera buffa” and “opera seria.” So, “Too many notes”? Is The Abduction from the Sergalio merely an exotic mosaic of genres assembled by a beginner? Or the birth certificate of German opera saluted by Goethe? Isn’t it excessive, “too much”? Or does it stand with genius in the balance of synthesis, as we are given to understand by Mozart’s reply to Joseph II’s “too many notes”: “Just as many as is necessary, Sire!” In the orchestral and vocal profusion full of refinements, the work reveals all the depth of a musical personality establishing itself and turning resolutely towards the fulfilment of its extraordinary creativity.

A Perfect Harmony

The circumstances behind The Abduction from the Seraglio show that all the ingredients have been brought together by some nice fairy to produce a masterpiece. There is a happy concordance between the creative fire that takes over the musician and the changes occurring in his life. The work was composed and created between two signature events: Mozart’s break with Archbiship Colloredo and his marriage to Constance Weber, whom he married three weeks after the triumph of The Abduction from the Seraglio – and whose heroine is named Konstanza. That detail tempts us to make biographical connections. Determined to stand up to his father, could Wolfgang be hiding behind the mask of Belmonte, who leaves to find his lost fiancée whom he must free from the seraglio? Might the struggle against Pasha Selim to win freedom and the right to love be linked to the epistolary battle Mozart had to wage to convince his father to agree to his marriage to Constance Weber?
But what really set off this yearning for freedom was Mozart’s inability to get along with Colloredo. Conscious of his own worth and determined to win his independence, Mozart was less and less tolerant of the constraints imposed on him by the imperious Archbishop of Salzburg, and the humiliating condition of domestic servant inflicted on artists in the late 18th century. Most of all, he could not stand being under house arrest while he was dreaming of winning over the Viennese public. 
“Vienna, this 9th day of May, 1781. My very dear father! I am no longer sufficiently unhappy to be in the service of Salzburg; today is my day of happiness.” Rejecting the advice of his father, who was alarmed by his desire for independence, Mozart exulted! He was finally free to set himself up in Vienna to pursue his career as he wanted, far from his employer…and his father.
It was then that he received a providential commission that enabled him to realize one of his most cherished dreams, to write an opera in German: This was the “nationalist” desire of Emperor Joseph II. This established a perfect harmony between the aspirations of the creator, finally the master of his own fate, and the artistic ambitions of an emperor concerned with the German nation’s cultural development. Mozart found an opportunity to develop his genius through a suitable commission associated with the reorganization of the old Burgtheater, which had become the national theatre with a section called “German Opera” or “National Singspiel.”  
“With the greatest enthusiasm”

The copious correspondence Mozart exchanged with his father back in Salzburg lets us follow the day-by-day development of The Abduction from the Seraglio.   In a few months the composer’s life took a new turn; Mozart set to work in a sort of creative euphoria on 30 July 1781. “The circumstances that will come together when the work is presented, and especially all other viewpoints so overexcite my inspiration that it is with the greatest enthusiasm that I run to my table to write, and with the greatest joy remain seated there” (1 August 1781). This enthusiasm for a new career and the delight of shared inclinations with Constance mark the stages of composition of a work that becomes a veritable laboratory of ideas.     

How Can One Be Persian?

Gottlieb Stephanie, the Burgtheater inspector, submitted to Mozart a libretto written on a canvas that had already been well used. There was no originality in this subject, treated as a conventional “turquerie,” with a theme cherished by the 18th century Encyclopaedists, the generosity of the Oriental soul, rivalling Westerners in the register of elevated sentiments.  Behind the cruelty and barbarism uniformly attributed to Orientals may be hiding generosity and sensitivity. Mozart had already made use of this theme in a never-completed singspiel, Zaïde. Some Christians become the slaves of a cruel sultan, Soliman, who goes from threats to clemency, finally freeing those who love one another. The character of the “generous Turk” as it appears in Rameau’s Les Indes Galantes is a sort of common point. When Mozart went to live in Vienna, they were still performing a comic opera by Gluck entitled, La Rencontre imprévue ou Les Pélerins de la Mecque which makes use of elements that form the plot of The Abduction from the Sertaglio. The originality of Mozart’s new singspiel did not lie in its subject, so often staged and performed. It lay rather in a perfect balance between convention and stylistic novelty that was achieved through a synthesis of elements traditional and innovative. This is demonstrated by the brilliant “Turkish” orchestration in the Overture, which immediately plunges the audience into an Arabian atmosphere serving as background to the plot.  The composer blends instruments characteristic of Janissary bands with those of a classical orchestra.  This pushes it beyond conventional exoticism into innovative explorations of tone. This harmonious blend of daring and mastery forms the outlines of this popular German opera, whose success was saluted by Goethe: “All the efforts we made to express the depth of things became futile when Mozart appeared; ‘The Abduction from the Seraglio’ dominated us all.”

“A Good Composer Who Understands Theatre”

Mozart wanted to be able to experiment with his dramaturgical and musical choices. He participated in developing the libretto by demanding changes in the prosody and vocabulary. Although he proclaimed, “In an opera, the poetry must absolutely be the obedient daughter of the music,” that in no way means he was uninterested in dramatic effectiveness: “The best thing is when a good composer, who understands theatre and is himself able to suggest ideas, meets up with a judicious poet” (13 October 1781). Mozart wanted to achieve a balance between text and music. He wanted to equip himself with the resources for characterising each character by a style that most accurately renders what might be called his psychological tonality. This diversity of registers comes not from the disparate but from a desire to make lyric theatre a mirror of the human soul.  The nobility of Konstanza’s tone, the irresistible petulance of Blonde, and gentle Belmonte’s ardent love are thus able to mingle with the comical and formidable Osmin, whose comic character will be accented by the virtuosity of the alliterations and repetitions. This demands that the singer be capable of vocalizing from a low timbre to comical high notes.  
Each process used in musical writing is carefully detailed by Mozart. The favourite rhythms, the restrained harmonies, the colours of voices and instruments used at their best all unfold in apparent obviousness: he composes quickly, with perfect mastery and unfailing assurance of his ability to find the best artistic solution. He seeks to put all the resources of his music at the service of dramatic expression. This is proven by his explanations in a famous letter to his father dated 26 September 1781. Citing Belmonte’s aria as an example, he says (Act I, scene 5): “Belmonte’s aria in A major… Do you know how it is rendered? The beating heart filled with love is already announced in advance by the two violins at the octave… We feel the trembling, the uncertainty; we feel the swollen chest rising up – this rendered by a crescendo; we hear the voice whispering, sighing, this rendered by the first muted violins with a flute.” .

“I am at present writing a German opera”

“Each nation has its opera.” Why should we Germans not have it?” Is not the German language as singable as French and English? I am at present writing a German opera ‘for myself’” (5 February 1783). It would be difficult to describe his project more clearly. The Abduction from the Sergaglio is what is known as a “singspiel,” i.e., a work in German that includes spoken dialogue and parts set to music. It may be said that it is a sort of operetta with generally limited musical ambitions, with a very significant comic element. “Schachtner’s operetta” is what Mozart called Zaïde (1779-1780), the unfinished singspiel found by his wife Constance eighteen years after his death.
It would have been possible for him to reprise the Zaïde score and adapt it to the commission he was given, but as Mozart himself stressed: “In Vienna they prefer comic plays.” That is why the composer paid very close attention to writing the role of Osmin, the seraglio guard. Using the customary “singspiel” approach, the libretto develops the love affairs of the couple of masters, Konstanza and Belmonte, and those of the servant couple, Blonde and Pedrillo. This enables the composer to play on the comic contrasts, setting off the “serio” from the “buffo.” 

From Blended Genres to Harmonious Synthesis

The plot presents us with two couples, masters and servants, whose amorous aspirations run up against two formidable adversaries whose real and assumed cruelty seems to go hand in hand with their cultural and religious differences. The noble register is assured by Konstanza, a dazzlingly virtuoso “heroic soprano,” and her lover Belmonte, a prototype of the Mozartian tenor. This couple belongs to the world of “opera seria” dominated by amorous despair, aspirations of fidelity, and heroism. Belmonte is willing to do anything to free his beloved from the seraglio where she is held prisoner by Pasha Selim. As counterpoint, we find the couple formed by the spirited Blonde and Petrillo, characters right out of “opera buffa.” However, Mozart gives a special dimension to Blonde, who is the precursor of Susanna in Nozze or Despina in Così fan tutte. She proclaims proudly: “I am an Englishwoman, born for freedom.” After Montesquieu and Voltaire, England became the symbol of political freedom. It had a form of religious tolerance. We should also note that it was the birthplace of Freemasonry. Konstanza’s maid adds a light dimension with her charming, lively arias; she expands the scope of singspiel to a meditation on freedom and independence in the face of an arbitrary and tyrannical power. Pedrillo, her male counterpart, is the first of a family of valets, skilled in leading the action with all the inventiveness of a man of the people full of good sense.

Opposite these two couples stand two very different characters. Pasha Selim has the power of life and death over others. He is at the centre of the plot, and yet it is only a spoken role. He is the “generous Turk” who renounces his love for Konstanza by pardoning her.  With the nobility of his attitude, the drama unfolds in general joy and exaltation of universal brotherhood. 
Next to him stands Osmin, the seraglio guard, the most original character in this singspiel. He provides most of the work’s comic dimension. At once formidable and ridiculous, sadistic and pretentious, this “buffo” bass role was written for an extraordinary singer, Ludwig Fischer, all of whose talent Mozart wanted to exploit.
Six characters cross paths, come together and face off to better blend into the irresistible movement that leads us to the final reconciliation. The opera ends with what was known as a “vaudeville,” a review in which the main characters step to the front of the stage, each accompanied by a different instrument, singing in turn a couplet whose refrain is picked up by the chorus: “He who is able to forget so much kindness is to be despised.”  Then the “Turkish music” breaks out, echoing the Overture. By this final reconciliation of the characters, all the aspects of this undulating and diverse work are brought together, borne along by the ardour of youth and conceived with the mastery of true critical thinking.
With The Abduction from the Seraglio, Mozart succeeds in wedding noble and tragic style with the light and comic register, to give rise to a German opera – and The Magic Flute was to be another of his accomplishments. As an innovative composer, he used an existing form, the singspiel, pouring into it all the richness of his inspiration. He transforms a genre, giving it the contours of a unique work that cannot be enclosed within any restrictive boundaries. This makes it possible for conductors to choose to shed light on that aspect that bests matches their sensibility without betraying the spirit of this protean work that reconciles popular theatre and philosophical fable, fashionable Turkishness and celebration of universal brotherhood.


Catherine Duault

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