Inversion of Stereotypes in Mozart’s Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail

In addition to all the other things he means to me, Mozart is also, hands down, my favourite opera composer. His best operas – Le Nozze di Figaro, Die Zauberflote, Don Giovanni – are among the most inspired and moving pieces of music I’ve ever heard, and I have a considerable fondness for Cosi Fan Tutte. I even enjoyed Idomeneo, even though I can’t help feeling that it’s not really Mozart.

Which is why it’s fairly surprising that I’ve never listened to Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail more. I’ve heard it a couple of times before, of course, and thoroughly enjoyed it, but somehow it never made my list of essential pieces.

Until now. Listening to it again last week, I suddenly realised how much I’d been missing out on. Die Entfuhrung is the first of Mozart’s great operas – a work that is a stunning departure from the plainness of Idomeneo, written just one year earlier*. This is the first time you hear the glorious complexity of Mozart’s music in all its exhilarating richness – that inimitable talent that Mozart has for setting dialogue to music, so that a series of clear, individual voices come together in a dizzying harmony; the cut and thrust of notes fencing with each other, that exquisite sense of balance coupled with a powerful, driving force – what Ted Hughes calls “the bullet and automatic purpose” of Mozart’s music. The orchestration is richer here, the pace more hectic, the individual voices more clearly delineated. Die Entfuhrung is not quite as brilliant as Figaro or Zauberflote** but you can clearly hear that shades of those operas to come in the music here.

What last week’s listening (and paying close attention to the libretto for a change) really brought home to me though, was how deeply seditious the opera really is – how much it makes fun of the heroic stereotypes, turning them entirely on their head.

The story, in a nutshell, is this. A young noblewoman called Konstanza, along with her maid Blondchen and her maid’s lover Pedrillo have fallen into the hands of the Pasha Salim. While Blondchen has been given as a slave to one Osmin, a vassal of the Pasha’s, Salim continues to try to woo Konstanza for himself. From this predicament, Konstanza’s fiance, a spanish nobleman named Belmonte comes to rescue them. Obtaining entrance into the Pasha’s palace by pretending to be an architect, Belmonte plans a daring escape, but the four lovers are caught and taken prisoner. It is discovered that Belmonte is the son of the Pasha’s sworn enemy, and it seems certain that the lovers will be put to death. At the last minute, though, the Pasha decides to release the prisoners rather than torture them, and the opera ends with the lovers sailing away while singing the Pasha’s praises and thanking him for his mercy.

Two things are important to note here – first, that the real ‘hero’ of this story is undoubtedly Pasha Salim. Like Sarastro in Die Zauberflote Salim is the person with the real power here, Belmonte is nothing but a dilettante – a blithering idiot who blunders into a situation, sings a bunch of wonderful arias about love and longing and then ends up getting caught (even Pedrillo, his servant – a sidekick closely related to Papageno – is shrewder). It is Salim who shows admirable restraint (for a Pasha) in not taking Konstanza by force; it is Salim whose compassion and mercy eventually bring about the happy ending (ironically, it’s not a particularly happy ending for Salim, in fact, with a little bit of imagination you can almost imagine the bitterness he feels, having forgiven the foolish lovers and listening to them sing their hypocritical and overblown songs of gratitude – swearing never to forget him – which he knows to be false). Yet, in a move worthy of Becket, Salim is the one character in the opera who never sings at all – his role is entirely dialogue.

Why does Salim do it? The argument that Salim makes to Belmonte in the opera is that he (Salim) hates Belmonte’s father so much that he refuses to do what Belmonte’s father would almost certainly do in such a case – he chooses to be kind precisely because his enemy would be cruel. Yet Salim adds, “tell your father that there is greater satisfaction in answering an evil deed with a good than an evil deed with an evil one”. And later, speaking to Osmin, who is indignant at being robbed of Blondchen, Salim says, “If you cannot win someone with kindness, then there is no point in trying force”. It’s in these actions / statements of Salim that the fine irony of the opera lies – the fact that Salim, a Muslim ruler, is the only true Christian in the play. None of the other ‘christian’ characters have any real compassion for either Salim or Osmin.

This is an amazingly bold message (remember, the opera was first performed in 1781), even for one hidden away in what is essentially a comic opera. And what makes it interesting is that it would seem to be atleast partly Mozart’s doing. The original libretto for the opera had Salim discover that Belmonte was his own long lost son, with Salim’s subsequent actions being explained that way. When Mozart set the opera to music, however, the plot was changed to accomodate this darker, more ironic storyline.

The other interesting thing about Die Entfuhrung is the way in which, for its time, it’s an interestingly feminist work. Women in Die Entfuhrung are not helpless victims of the lusts of men, rather they are courageous lusty individuals who do more to maintain their own honour than the men who supposedly ‘protect’ them. In a pivotal moment at the beginning of Act Two, for instance, Osmin confronts Blondchen, insisting that she, as his woman, conform to his every wish. Blondchen immeadiately informs him where he can go, actually threatening to gouge his eyes out, and informing him that it takes kindness and consideration to win a woman’s heart, not rough, brutal behaviour. At another point (in the middle of what must be the most beautiful episode in the whole opera -a glorious quartet at the end of Act 2), Pedrillo, fearing that Blondchen is no longer ‘pure’ questions her about her relationship with Osmin and gets slapped for his pains and told that he can go to hell because she has no intention of being with a man who doesn’t trust her. The point is that there’s no fear in Blondchen, nothing servile or cringing, she comports herself throughout with a confidence that few Hindi film heroines of today could manage – and remember this is 1781! Nor is Konstanza far behind. While her role is more docile and submissive, one of the highlights of the opera is this massive aria in the middle of Act 2 (an aria that compares in power to the arias of the Queen of the Night in Die Zauberflote) where Konstanza threatened with physical torture by Salim, informs him in a voice filled with rage that he can do his worst and nothing will phase her. Once again, this is an aria added by Mozart for the opera, the original libretto has nothing quite so enraged.

In some sense, of course, dark humour of this sort is not unfamiliar in Mozart’s operas. There is certainly a sense in which Figaro is both a tremendously dark comedy as well as a powerful social critique, and it is certainly true that the text of Cosi fan tutte makes fun of the idea of lyrical romance as much as the music itself seems to praise it. But I think of all the operas this is the one where the ironies are most evident – it’s almost as if there were two operas here – the comic opera on the surface and a darker, more emotionally complex plot underneath that Mozart’s gloriously happy music serves only to mock. The bitterness of Die Entfuhrung comes precisely from its sweetness – to think about the feelings of Salim throughout the opera is to experience the callousness of the other characters played out through the music. Like children in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan the singers in Mozart’s opera are gay and innocent and heartless.

Notes:

* The fact that Mozart has just left the service of the Arch-bishop of Salzburg and moved to Vienna at this point may have something to do with this.

** The major problem with the opera is that Mozart, desperate for a commercial success and blessed with the finest singing talent of his day, spends too much time on the arias. They’re beautiful arias, of course, soaring and grand – arias that Verdi, for instance, would have been proud of. But they detract from the energy of the opera, they are a drag on the rapid pace with which the rest of the opera progresses

*** It’s interesting that the opera should be called the ‘Abduction’ from the Seraglio – technically, there’s no real abduction here – partly because it’s not as though the women are being taken against their wishes, but more because in the end it’s Salim who allows his prisoners to go. One more of Mozart’s clever little jokes?

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