Flawed Seraglio  

Too many notes? Berkeley Opera's Mad Max take on the Mozart classic has other problems.

Mozart was a prescient man. Set in a Mad Max-style post-apocalyptic world, his 1782 opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail (Abduction from the Seraglio) is full of pimps, junkies, muckraking reporters, and references to oil politics and Enron-style book-cooking.

Wait, what?

Okay, obviously this has nothing to do with Mozart. Berkeley Opera's The Seraglio might appear at a glance to be simply a new English translation or slight update of his lighthearted romp about rescuing your true love from the harem of a Turkish pasha, but in fact it's another animal entirely. A new book by artist-in-residence Amanda Moody adds a bunch of vague backstory about how there's no oil anymore, and from that it somehow follows that there's no money either, and pleasures are the only commodity left.

The Pasha Selim is now Gorgeous Jerome (Armand J. Blasi, made up like a wizard Conan villain), a former oil securities trading firm CEO turned pimp and opium dealer, his stately pleasure dome a cathouse presumably neighboring the Thunderdome. His captive Konstanze is now ace reporter Connie (soprano Sheila Willey in mascara-tear makeup), taken prisoner and kept strung out on drugs while working undercover on an exposé. Her true love and would-be rescuer Belmonte becomes her editor Beau (tenor Andrew Truett), who, it turns out, is still her true love — never mind his getting distracted midrescue by the pleasures of the flesh. Oh, and there's an invisible dog and a little girl in a big pointy elf hat in there somewhere, too.

Torben Torp-Smith's set efficiently evokes your standard dystopian near-future: a chain-link fence, dingy traffic cones, hubcaps, an oil drum turned fire pit, plus a couple of pillars with gargoyles. The costumes by Vincent (just Vincent, thank you) are a glitterdämmerung of torn fishnets, face paint, and tutus, which make characters resemble Rocky Horror refugees with their eyes on Ziggy Stardust.

Berkeley Opera likes to do these radical reimaginings from time to time, such as David Scott Marley's Bat Out of Hell (from Strauss' Die Fledermaus) and The Riot Grrrl on Mars (Rossini's Italian Girl in Algiers). In fact, stage director and lyricist Ross Halper says in the program notes that he'd already done a translation of Seraglio set on Mars but figured that because Martian opera had already been done here, he'd have to come up with something else.

What Halper comes up with on the lyrics front doesn't exactly work against the music, but it distracts more than it adds. Some of it is cute, such as when the duet "Vivat Bacchus" becomes "Long Live Thunderbird," and there's a funny line here and there: "More than Tourette's, you've got three-ette's" or "You're a taco short of a platter." The rhymes are labored and hard-won, stringing together strings of hackneyed sayings and garbled nonsense ("Please spare this child and spoil the rod"; "What a trip, what serendip").

Underneath it all is still Mozart, and the music is a delight, well played and nicely sung throughout. If you're not professionally obliged to pay attention to the other stuff, you can still close your eyes and enjoy the sprightly choruses and complex arias that supposedly led Emperor Joseph II, who commissioned the piece, to complain that there were "too many notes." It's just that everything else conspires to distract from it, which on opening night included some technical difficulties such as an overamplified triangle and a loud flapping sound that sounded like fake-fire celluloid in the oil drum getting caught in a fan.

Seraglio is a Singspiel to begin with — which, as the name implies, involves stretches of spoken dialogue as well as singing, so while the music is a breath of fresh air, it's often withheld for chunks of exposition. The trouble is that the new backstory is hopelessly convoluted, and the sudden, implausible resolution quadruply so. You get the impression that its ridiculousness is intentional and meant to be comic, but it's mostly just perplexing.

The other problem with all this chitchat is that the singers aren't really up for it. The arias they handle with no problem, but the acting is mostly wooden, and things that are supposed to be funny almost never are. It's a flaw exacerbated by a somewhat static staging in which characters mostly circle each other making threats. (To be fair, that's mostly what thug Osmin does in any version — here he's a Russian buffoon played by Roger McKracken, who tackles the notoriously low-pitched bass parts nicely.) Blasi gets in some fiendish gesticulation in the spoken role of the pasha-pimp, but it's a little like calling in Dennis Hopper's Waterworld character to elevate the proceedings.

One problematic adaptation is no skin off Mozart's nose, and is hardly going to make the original perish from this earth (although apparently if we run out of oil, all bets are off). But when he gets buried under fishnets, hubcaps, and non sequiturs, it just makes powdered wigs and turbans start looking pretty good in retrospect.


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