1782 was a rough year for Mozart. He was broke. More accurately, he was even more broke than usual. He had just lost his job with the archbishop of Salzburg, when the archbishop moved his court and neglected to send Mozart a forwarding address. He was about to marry a woman who could spend money even faster than he. So Mozart moved to Vienna with a radical notion: Rather than attach himself to a court or a church as composer-in-residence, the usual gig for a serious eighteenth-century music writer, he'd hang out a shingle as a freelance composer for hire. But first he needed a hit. He was 25 years old and had been a working musician for twenty of those years. He knew how to give the people what they wanted. He desperately desired a commission for an opera to be written in German, the language of the city in which he lived, Vienna, rather than the standard Italian, in which operas aimed at the upper classes were written. Luckily the Austrian emperor, Joseph II, was on a popularize-culture kick. Mozart wangled an audience with the emperor and convinced Joseph to let him write music to a story that had already run successfully in other cities with scores by better-known composers. The setting would take advantage of the craze for things Turkish that was sweeping Vienna that year. The form of the show would be Singspiel, the eighteenth-century Viennese equivalent of a Broadway musical. The show succeeded beyond Mozart's dreams. The Abduction From the Seraglio, the opera that came from that commission, earned more in his lifetime than anything else he wrote.
Opera Theatre of St. Louis' current version of The Abduction From the Seraglio is delightfully true to the popular spirit of the original Viennese production. The plot of Abduction is a rescue-the-damsel-in-distress standard. The Spanish nobleman Belmonte has arrived on an island off the coast of North Africa to retrieve his betrothed, Constanza, who is being held captive in a harem (seraglio) by a local Turkish ruler, the Pasha Selim. Belmonte's faithful servant Pedrillo -- who, amazingly, has also fallen into the hands of the pasha and is, coincidentally, in love with Constanza's English maid, Blonda -- assists him. They are both at odds with Osmin, the keeper of the pasha's household -- who, of course, is also in love with Blonda and is looking for an excuse to run his sword across the foreigners' throats. (Let's face it: If you're going to the opera for plot, you're fooling yourself.)
Stage director Elkhanah Pulitzer sees the story as a vehicle for broad comedy. The hilariously simple comic-book sets establish a whimsical mood. Pulitzer then drives her cast well past the normal lines of comic opera and into broad physical humor.
She has a lot to work with. Kevin Short, who plays the villainous Osmin, is the glue that holds the show together. He has the kind of comic moves and timing you don't ever expect to find in an opera singer. Short is absolutely unafraid to shred his character's dignity for a laugh. Bright-voiced Celena Shafer mugs and shines as Blonda. Jennifer Welch-Babidge, coming off her triumph in the title role of last season's Lucia di Lammermoor, sings Constanza. Gregory Turay plays her would-be rescuer with the moral certainty and single-mindedness of Dudley Do-Right. Opening night, the couple started out tentative, but their singing caught fire during the duet in the middle of the second act. From there on they led the cast in invigorating some of Mozart's most irresistible melodies. Pulitzer's English translation sits gently on the music and lets the tunes shine through.