Opera in Ankara

An ‘Abduction’ in many tongues

By Haluk Direskeneli | March 10, 2014


One has to admire Yekta Kara’s staging of The Abduction from the Seraglio at the Ankara State Opera House. I was frankly sceptical about her previous productions, which I found unusual, not to say maverick. This is different. It is, in a word, fantastic.

Elsewhere in the world, all the opera’s characters speak German. In Ankara, each keeps to his or her native tongue, and they all understand each other. A first on stage, and possible only in Turkey.

While Selim Pasha and his servant Osman naturally speak in Turkish, the English slave girl, Blonde, delivers in smooth, fluent English. And Pedrillo, servant to the Spanish nobleman Belmonte, adopts broken Turkish when he needs to make himself understood, but otherwise speaks and sings in German. And so the opera is Turkified in a way no other staging anywhere has ever before attempted.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio (Die Entführung aus dem Serail in its original German, Il Seraglio in Italian, and in Turkish Saraydan Kız Kaçirma) is an absolute gift to Turkish opera lovers.

Belmonte (tenor), his beloved Konstanze (soprano), the servant Pedrillo (tenor) and Pedrillo’s girlfriend, Blonde (soprano), are prisoners of Selim Pasha and are being held in the pasha’s summer mansion somewhere on the Mediterranean. The pasha’s harem guard, Osman, is the villain of the piece. There are lots of beautiful harem girls and guards, everyone is dressed in authentic Ottoman style and we have a nice, happy ending.

 
Pedrillos Blondes at the Ankara Opera, Görkem Ezgi Yıldırım, Aslı Sesal and Deniz Boran

This opera was one of the first with a German libretto. Audiences, even those like the author with only elementary German, can easily follow the simple, comic German conversation. Premiered at the Burgtheater in Vienna in 1782, it was an immediate success, though Mozart made very little money out of it – just 450 florins – despite the fact that the revenue from the first two performances alone was 1200 florins, and the opera is still making money today.

Sultan Abdülhamid I (1774–89) was on the Ottoman throne at the time, and one wonders if the Ottomans were aware of the opera and, if so, how comfortable they were with its criticism of their administration (though there are positive aspects). However, the first Turkish Embassy in Vienna was only opened in 1916.

When Mozart composed the opera, almost a century had passed since the second siege of Vienna and the city’s narrow escape from Turkish invasion. At the time of the siege, Vienna would have resounded to terrifying Janissary war music coming from beyond their gates. Several generations later, Mozart managed to work this music into his wonderful operatic tunes, using orchestras reinforced with a bass drum, cymbals, triangle and recorder (nowadays replaced with a piccolo).

Today the opera is regularly performed on European stages, and at least eight CD recordings are available, including one starring probably the greatest Konstanze of them all: the soprano Edita Gruberova (Decca, 1985).

Yekta Kara’s staging benefits from wonderful authentic costumes and fine theatrical performances, while the set design is plain, but pleasing and realistic. While Selim Pasha’s performance is powerfully theatrical, Osman’s is rich in Turkish motifs, and in the parts of Konstanze and Blonde, our sopranos compete with each other brilliantly in gorgeous, flawless voices.

Ankara State Opera is to be congratulated for this truly extraordinary new interpretation. Maybe one day it will be staged in Vienna itself, just to show them: ‘This is our opera.’

The Abduction from the Seraglio will be staged in Ankara again on April 2, 12 and 21 and on May 10. Front seats are recommended. Tickets for the Ankara Opera House are available online from the State Opera and Ballet website. It will also be coming to the Istanbul Opera Festival this summer (June 3–17). Not to be missed.

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