Opera: Laughter lost in the translation

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Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail

Glyndebourne Touring Opera

When Dr Johnson called opera "an exotick and irrational entertainment" he wasn't dismissing all opera, only opera performed on the London stage in French and Italian. In 1997, a company touring a German-language production of Mozart's lays itself open to the charge of clinging to opera's "exotick and irrational" status. True, Glyndebourne Touring Opera (GTO) uses Peter Bloor's surtitles, inventive in an "ooh, you are awful" kind of way, but the joke isn't on the stage, it's above it, and laughter becomes separated from the action. The fact that Die Entfuhrung is a Singspiel doesn't help: when your singers come from Italy, Australia, Wales, Ireland and America, it's unreasonable to expect them to deliver metres of spoken German with impeccable comic timing.

Aidan Lang's production uses William Dudley's sets, first seen in 1980 and now looking no more than decorous. Design isn't something that simply goes around a staging, it helps to shape it. When the curtain rises, a scrim presents a view of a rather suburban seraglio, and the production is content to remain suburban throughout, a knockabout comedy from the school of distinctly soft knocks. On the other hand, the opera itself is not Mozart's finest. The three operas written to Da Ponte's librettos still feel modern, and the two seria operas, Idomeneo and La Clemenza di Tito, have a statuesque quality that is almost post-modern, but Die Entfuhrung, with its good Muslim/bad Muslim framework and sudden change of heart on the part of Pasha Selim seems outmoded, even when the music is at its most enchanting. This isn't the first staging from which Osmin (the "bad" Muslim in charge of Selim's seraglio) emerges as the most engaging figure, while everyone around him seems only a more or less beautiful vocal excrescence.

That's thanks in no small part to the performance of Gregory Frank, who has a real feeling for the comedy, supported by a voice that has the bottom notes the role demands, and a smoothly produced top to go with them. His musicality is matched by Carlo Vincenzo Allemano, whose light, even tenor handles most of what Mozart puts on Belmonte's way. Allemano even manages the odd embellishment here and there, although his stage movement is less flexible. Sadly, Ghillian Sullivan is rather undone by the coloratura that Mozart throws at Constanze, and she's forced to take some ungainly breaths that distort the admittedly extortionate lines. Her maid, Blonde, sung by Mary Hegarty, copes better with the situation.

The performance is conducted by Richard Farnes, who paces things well, finds real vigour in the pseudo-Turkish passages dotted through the piece, and gets lustrous sound from the orchestra, particularly the strings. Last Friday was the first night of an extended tour, and no doubt the production will improve, but I fear the rewards will remain musical rather than dramatic.

At Glyndebourne, Lewes (01273 813813) tonight, 17, 20, 25 October; then touring.

Nick Kimberley