Nézét-Séguin and Jacobs scamper into Mozart’s harem

Mozart: Die Entführung aus dem Serail

entfuhrung-jacobs-harmonia-mundiMozart’s Singspiel Die Entführung aus dem Serail is suddenly flavour of the month. After a terrific new David McVicar production at Glyndebourne last summer, recent recordings find two conductors scampering into the harem, each with moments of energy and Turkish delight, each with its frustrations and idiosyncrasies. Composed in the winter of 1781-82, the opera tells of the Spanish nobleman Belmonte’s attempts to rescue his fiancée Konstanze and her English maid, Blonde, from the Pasha Selim’s seraglio.

Entführung is the third Mozart opera in Deutsche Grammophon’s projected series with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, conducted by Yannick Nézét-Séguin. It is also the final recording in René Jacobs’ Mozart opera series for Harmona Mundi that has, in some cases, drawn new boundaries for how these masterpieces can be approached.

In Die Zauberflöte, for example, Jacobs conceived it as a Hörspiel – a radio play – and there is a similar feel here. Entführung is, like Zauberflöte, a Singspiel, with spoken dialogue rather than sung recitative between numbers and is a mixture of serious drama and comic interludes. Controversially, Jacobs has a fortepiano busily punctuating the dialogue, like a pianistic commentary. It is wittily done with hints, for example, of variants of Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music, and even an orchestral nudge towards the Rondo alla turca, but some will find it too interventionist. Sound effects are employed too – bells, birdsong, a creaky door – giving this a feel of a well-rehearsed production.

The conducting on both sets is excellent. Nézét-Séguin is unhurried, giving his singers room to breathe. Recorded in concert performances in Baden Baden, the COE gives a bright, modern instrument account, revelling in the Janissary music. Jacobs is more exuberant, though, more energetic, finding a balance between the serious and the comic, with tempi which flow a good deal more. The Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin plays with great personality, pungent Masonic woodwinds in Konstanze’s “Traurigkeit”, for example. Jacobs is much swifter here – by over two minutes – fitting Mozart’s Andante con moto instruction in the score. There is lovely felicitous phrasing in the introduction to “Martern aller Arten”, which includes Pasha Selim’s interjections which are usually spoken at the end of the aria… a perfect example of a Jacobs decision which some may deem too interventionist, but which – to me – makes dramatic sense.

entfuhrung-nezet-seguin-dgDG has the starrier line-up, but Harmonia Mundi’s young cast gives it a distinct edge. Nézét-Séguin’s Belmonte is Rolando Villazón, reinventing himself – unconvincingly – as a Mozart tenor following years of vocal crises. His is not a Mozartian voice. There is a tension in the sound production that makes it quite high voltage – a very bright, forward sound – as if he’s about to launch into Puccini. There is some style in the coloratura, but little natural ease. Turn to Maximilian Schmitt for Jacobs and you have a lovely Belmonte, mellifluously sung, with a lightness and elegance about his tone that is a delight.

In Robin Johannsen’s silvery voice and terrific coloratura, Jacobs also has the better Konstanze. Admittedly, Diana Damrau (on DG) sounds more at home in Mozart than some of her recent bel canto (or later) escapades, with some fearless coloratura in a commanding “Martern aller Arten”, but there are moments of shrillness on top notes in “Ach ich liebte”.

Nézét-Séguin has an excellent Blonde and Pedrillo. Anna Prohaska has all the ease at the top that Damrau lacks, while Paul Schweinester’s accomplished Pedrillo is marked by immaculate singing and true Mozartian style. Mari Eriksmoen’s feisty Blonde for Jacobs is only marginally less preferable than Prohaska.

Thomas Quasthoff makes a dignified Selim for Nézét-Séguin, more so than Cornelius Obonya’s growly Pasha for Jacobs, though the latter includes all the dialogue which is important in this Singspiel. Both Osmins are strong. Franz-Joseph Selig has the sepulchral low notes required, even if some of the coloratura in “O, wie will ich triumphieren” is a bit laboured. Jacobs has Dimitry Ivashchenko – Russian, but based at Berlin’s Komische Oper – as a fine Osmin, not as snarly as some basses but agile and with plenty of ‘bite’. In his Act II aria, there are a few “Turkish” additions, such as percussion chinks and an oriental vocal line or two (also added to his “drinking” duet with Pedrillo).

If you enjoy these interventions and aren’t allergic to the fortepiano tinkling away beneath the dialogue, then Jacobs should be your choice. Nézét-Séguin is perhaps a safer bet if you’re an admirer of Villazón and Damrau. Either way, these very fine Entführung recordings are a welcome addition to the catalogue. Now, if Glyndebourne get around to issuing its McVicar production to DVD…

DG Nézét-Séguin/COE 00289 479 4064 ***

Harmonia Mundi HMC 902214/15 ****

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