Arts Listings

Berkeley Opera Reinvents ‘Seraglio’ at Morgan Center

By Olivia Stapp, Special to the Planet
Friday March 16, 2007

Mozart purists should not expect Berkeley Opera’s new production, Seraglio, to have much resemblance to the renowned opera The Abduction From The Seraglio. Nothing in this rendition follows the original except the music.  

The opera has been pushed across genre boundaries and become an immiscible dichotomy of clashing forms. Mozart’s plot is reinvented, updated, and made “relevant” by the use of street slang and hip lyrics. Characters are added: an invisible dog and a “cheeky” child. The directors, carried away by their own unconstrained enthusiasm, have taken a musical creation that reflects the rationality and elegance of the Enlightenment and superimposed upon it a text and plot that relies too heavily on chaos and vulgarity.  

Jonathan Khuner, Ross Halper, and Amanda Moody set about to “reinvent” the master’s work, reframing the characters, the period, and the locale. Granting that the original, though musically superb, has a libretto that, for our modern sensibilities, seems stilted and boring, still, how far should one go in trying to spruce it up?  

Here, the seraglio is not a harem but a whorehouse; the time is in a future post-petroleum world in which “oil is over, money is over, gold is over.” The characters reflect a bleakness usually associated with the rough Brechtian style. They are caught in a futureless trap in which the only remaining currency is pleasure. Yet here no one smiles and the Prima Donna is perpetually stoned. The Primo Tenore, the romantic lead, is the food editor of a defunct national newspaper. The cast looks like scrappy leftovers from The Three Penny Opera spouting a text that would be more appropriate in a Mel Brooks movie.  

Each disparate element by itself has some degree of value: The music remains, of course, a triumph of logic and equipoise, the text is at times indeed witty, and the plot certainly uniformly weird. The zany confusion onstage is augmented by an imaginary dog that eats drinks and defecates (imaginary stuff) onstage. Osmin scoops the excrement in a plastic bag, and flings it about, at one point looking like he is aiming it squarely at the conductor’s head!  

Saddled with this juvenility the performers nevertheless give their all. Maestro George Thompson, a top notch conductor, kept the performance under control with a firm hand. After a rough start, the orchestra pulled it together, and the Maestro was able to evince poised rhythms, especially important for the great bravura arias of Connie and Osmin. The cast was uniformly good. Soprano Sheila Wiley, as Connie, the journalist being held prisoner in the Seraglio, displayed a clear well articulated voice.  

Blondie (Ann Moss), described in the program as “a seraglio kitten,” sang and acted with verve: her agility and high voice impressive. Andrew Truitt, Brian Thorsett, and Roger McCracken, (Beau, Pedrillo and Osmin, respectively) displayed vocal assuredness and theatrical know-how. All in all it was a strong lively cast. One can only lament not being able to listen more attentively, given the incessant distraction of the flood of unexpectedly pungent surtitles.  

The excellent actor Armand Blasi played Gorgeous Jerome, described in the program as “previously a CEO of an international oil firm … now the feared boss of the oldest trade on earth … including other amusements, at his own establishment, The Seraglio.” Bald, wearing a long red robe, with white satin pants and a lace collar, he was a convincingly depraved figure. His blank faced cynicism was reminiscent of a Christopher Walken character.  



Presented by the Berkeley Opera at 8 p.m. Friday and at 2 p.m. Sunday at the  

Julia Morgan Center, 2640 College Ave. 

(925) 798-1300.