Singing in the Seraglio

Mozart in Turkey

Ateş Orga reviews Moshinsky’s ‘Mozart in Turkey’

Mozart in Turkey, the new [2004] film by Mick Csáky and Elijah Moshinsky, has been waiting years to be made. Where more appropriate to stage Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail, after all, than the gardens, terraces and rooms of “the Grand Turk’s Seraglio”, the harem of Topkapı Palace? A complex of “prodigious extent”, Mary Wortley Montagu called it in 1718: “Indeed, I believe, there is no Christian king’s palace half so large.”

Eighteenth-century Europe was fascinated by the faraway exoticism and customs of the Ottomans, their monumental architecture with its elaborate arabesques, their morals and sexuality. Yet it was wary, fearful of their strength, mindful that Süleyman’s armies had laid siege to Habsburg Vienna less than a hundred years previously. True, they had been held at bay, but the enormity of their presence and the vastness of the cultural-religious divide remained – the percussion and clash of their military bands, the menace behind the ceremonial, resonating on in the “Turkish music” of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and Weber and the “Janissary” stops added to early forte-pianos.

The truce must often have been uneasy, the declining old lion of the East bloodied and dormant but not to be trifled with. Visitors brought back tales of civilisation and luxuriant romance, of laws “better designed” than the British, but of fratricide and cruelty, too, of corsairs kidnapping milk-skinned European beauties, of a sultan drowning his entire harem to set up another.

The film’s opening sequences infer these tensions brilliantly, counterpointing the comfortable domesticity of a Kapellmeister rehearsal with the bright, busy waters of the Golden Horn suddenly darkened and consumed by the threatening spectre of a black ship powering its way across the screen. Pasha Selim, the absolute ruler and lover, at once noble and “Turkishly cruel”, embodies the friction – a Valentino prototype, Moshinsky imagines.

Die Entführung (1781–82), the most enduring example of “Turkish” or “Eastern Rococo” theatre of its time, was, with Figaro, Mozart’s second most successful opera, offering “something for everyone”. Designed outwardly to excite and titillate Joseph II’s Viennese public, it was the equivalent, Moshinsky suggests (alluding to Cats), of a modern West End or Broadway musical – a Singspiel, treating the themes of freely-given love and justice, as each of its six characters try “to find a state of harmony, and to pursue happiness”. A coded message‚ perhaps, reflecting something of the newly betrothed Mozart’s own feelings and values. In forgiving the Spaniard Belmonte, son of his arch-enemy and Konstanze’s sweetheart, it is Selim, as Moshinsky says, who ultimately proves “more enlightened than the Westerner”, compassionately repaying injustice with favour.

The film is a subtitled kaleidoscope of costumed excerpts in the original German, scenic panoramas, production shots, documentary and interview (including Alev Lytle Croutier on harem life and the historical plausibility of the opera’s plot). There are unforgettable tableaux: the recurring ships of passage; the domes and minarets of the Istanbul skyline against an apricot sunset; a Renoir lake, all water, greenery, haze and dappled shadows; the captive, untouchable Konstanze carried on high, dressed in white and poignantly beautiful; the delicious caprice of the flouncing Blonde, her buxom English maid and the object of Osmin’s desire; the washed-out, overexposed scenes in front of the kiosk of Osman III, where Konstanze, in blood red, brings the only vibrancy to Selim’s anaemic, loveless domain.

Die Entführung is comic, profound, vocally challenging. Moshinsky directs and plays the camera with an unerring eye for detail and subliminal association. And he gets the best out of a fine cast, with an eloquent, tender-edged performance from the Turkish soprano Yelda Kodall› (Konstanze), a young coloratura to watch, and convincingly mature characterisations from Paul Groves (Belmonte) and Lynton Atkinson (Pedrillo, Belmonte’s former servant). Rotund and shaven-headed, Peter Rose (Osmin, overseer of the harem) proves an outstandingly focused singer-actor, while Oliver Tobias (Selim), recreating a speaking role operagoers will remember from Moshinsky’s Covent Garden production, is an imposing Pasha – albeit Westernised, without beard or turban. As for Sicilian-born Désirée Rancatore (Blonde), she ravishes the senses at every sprightly toss of a phrase.

Sir Charles Mackerras and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra elegantly underline Mozart’s inventive genius – from high poetry to vaudeville, galanterie to alla turca. A co-production between Antelope Films, the BBC and the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and the Arts (organisers of the Istanbul Festival), Mozart in Turkey is stylish, informative documentary-drama, theatrically and visually arresting on the big screen, educational and entertaining on the small. Essential viewing.

The 2010 DVD (all regions) is available from Amazon.
A complete CD is version available on the Telarc label, CD-80544. Ateş Orga is writer and record producer. His father was the late İrfan Organ, author of Portait of a Turkish Family.

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Issue 20, 2000 The Lake that Time Forgot
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