Boston Baroque: Abduction from the Seraglio

(Originally published in  Boston Magazine, May 1998)

One my most treasured music experiences was the Boston Baroque‘s concert production of The Marriage of Figaro a few years ago. It was a very hot night at Jordan Hall — before renovations and air-conditioning — and everyone was sweating and uncomfortable. But the music — oh, the music! As the orchestra pulled Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart‘s marvelous, unamplified music out of the hot night air, the singers stood on stage, without sets, without costumes, without make-up or wigs, and sang to each other, and to us.

As Figaro and Susanna sang of their longing for their wedding day, everyone in that hot, still room could feel the energy between them; they sang as if their lives depended on it. The Countess’s first song was good but not great; but her final aria was amazing; it reached a great circle of forgiveness over the audience, and brought Mozart’s harmonies home, to the heart. I’ve heard many more lavish productions of Figaro, but this was the one that moved me the most.

In May, Boston Baroque will produce a concert performance of Mozart’s early opera, Abduction from the Seraglio. Anyone who saw Amadeus will remember this as the opera that takes places in a Turkish harem, with a great role for a virtuoso soprano, played in the movie by a big, beautiful blonde wearing an enormous white wig.  Here, she will be sung by Sally Wolf, who is currently hitting the high notes as the Queen of the Night in the Met’s production of The Magic Flute. “The singers are fantastic,” says Martin Pearlman, conductor and director of this renowned early music ensemble, who has been based in Boston since the early 1970’s, when he came here as  young harpsichordist, because Boston was the center of harpsichord-making — and therefore harpsichord-playing — in the United States.

The ensemble began as Banchetta Musicale, with eight people. “Everybody who could play Baroque instruments in town,” says Pearlman. “Finally I found some oboes, then some singers. I like a natural sound. I like to hear them sing out. I hire people whose voices I like, and then let them sing.”

Eventually the group grew much larger, and changed its name to Boston Baroque.

Mozart wrote Abduction in 1781, at the age of 25, as a “Singspiel” — a traditonal German singing play, closer to a musical than an opera, at a time when Turkish music was in vogue in Vienna; hence all the cymbals, drums, and triangles — far more percussion than is usual for Boston Baroque. The story involves a beautiful woman who is captured by pirates, sold into a Sultan’s harem, and rescued by her lover. It starts out light and comic, gradually grows deeper, more melodic, more profound, and ends in perfect harmony. Pearlman compares Abduction to Leonard Bernstein‘s West Side Story, which also  brings together elements of both high art — opera — and low art — the musical — into a new form that transcends them both. “It was a breakthough for Mozart,” says Pearlman. “It was a big success, and suddenly the singspiel was a work of art.”

Boston Baroque’s production will be sung in German, but the long spoken passages will be in English, in a new translation by Laurence Senulik.

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