Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Die Entführung aus dem Serail (1782)
Konstanze – Robin Johannsen (soprano)
Blonde – Mari Eriksmoen (soprano)
Belmonte – Maximilian Schmitt (tenor)
Pedrillo – Julian Prégardien (tenor)
Osmin – Dimitry Ivashchenko (bass)
Bassa Selim – Cornelius Obonya (spoken)
RIAS Kammerchor
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin/René Jacobs
rec. September 2014, Teldex Studio, Berlin
HARMONIA MUNDI HMC902214.15 [80:32 + 79:37]

Confession first: if you’d asked me the day before I heard this CD, I’d have told you that I couldn’t abide René Jacobs’ Mozart. His previous recordings of the major operas always struck me as utterly wilful, and lots of things about them were, to me, distinctly odd. It’s testimony to the quality of this set, the last instalment in his series of Mozart operas, that I’ve almost changed my mind.

The main reason I bought into this Seraglio is that Jacobs has put so much thought into realising the opera for a home audio audience. It reminded me a little of the golden age of John Culshaw at Decca, though Jacobs’ approach is in every way different to his. Jacobs’ own extensive booklet note explains and justifies all of his interpretative choices, but central to his success is the way he brings the dialogue – almost all of it – to pulsing dramatic life. There is, for example, a wonderful sense of badinage to the opening interaction between Belmonte and Osmin, a proper sense of to-and-fro, with unwritten musical interjections which, to my great surprise, I found involving rather than annoying, with the cheeky tinkling of the fortepiano leavening the texture beautifully. Throughout, in fact, the dialogue is delivered wonderfully, and very involvingly, and lots of little touches stand out, such as the way, when we first meet him, Pedrillo enters whistling the tune of In Mohrenland. The only major misfire, I thought, was the Pasha's all too frequent interruptions to Martern aller Arten which, despite Jacobs’ justification, I just found annoying.

There are plenty of other touches that will be familiar to those who know the other operas in Jacobs' set, such as the way the fortepiano, a constant playful presence, sometimes steals the opening phrase of a number which should belong to, say, the violins (Osmin's first two arias are prime examples). Then there's the unorthodox way it sometimes colours the texture of a passage such as the funereal tone struck before Konstanze's first dialogue with Pasha Selim. On the other hand, what I often found annoying before, I here found quite winning. A couple of times, such as the dialogue between Traurigkeit and Martern aller Arten, the fortepiano sounds a bit like a silent film soundtrack, but some people will think that adds to the dramatic effect. Sure, Jacobs’ interventions are often of questionable authenticity but, as his advocates have long pointed out, we will never completely know how Mozart played with his scores when he directed them himself. In that sense Jacobs' bid is about as valuable as anyone else's.

Not everything works. The Rondo alla Turca makes a special guest appearance during the scene where the escapees are sprung, but this scene tries the audience’s patience in its extended form, with parts for Janissaries and guards. There are several other times when the dialogue drags a little, and it's asking a lot to digest chunks of six to seven minutes at times. However, it speaks for the drama's success that such moments are refreshingly rare. I was left with the with overall impression that this was proper music drama, a bit like a successful radio play, and Jacobs himself uses the word Hörspiel to describe the effect he was aiming for, which tells you a lot.

The other plank of the set’s success is the quality of the playing and the orchestral sound. In particular, there is a real fizz-bang-pop to the Turkish moments. It’s not just the prominent cymbals and triangles, but the piccolo and bass drum are also brought forward to give the whole thing much more of a forward-facing presence. The fortepiano, too, adds to that tinkly edge that really makes a difference, and not just in the Turkish scenes. It’s perhaps a controversial presence on a recording of this opera – after all, there is no recitative – but it really works to add light and shade to the texture. Jacobs also generates an excitingly coherent sense of a dramatic arc, which climaxes in the Act 2 finale, which explodes out of the speakers; I suspect Jacobs sees it as the pinnacle of the work.

The singing is mostly very good. Maximilian Schmitt brings his usual golden tone to Belmonte. If initially he isn't as honeyed as you might have hoped then he most definitely improves, and Ich baue ganz is lovely. I enjoyed his tone in Wenn der Freude, but not so much his ornamentations, which felt a bit stapled on rather than a natural part of the music. It is luxury casting to have the marvellous Julian Prégardien in the fairly minor role of Pedrillo, and he sings Frisch zum Kampfe with a combination of vocal vigour and an actor's (and lieder singer's) ability to evoke faux nervousness. To make up for the infrequency of his arias, he throws himself into the dialogue winningly, and he is one of the most winning vocal presences, making the absolute most of In Mohrenland. Dimitry Ivashchenko is not a cavernous Osmin of the Kurt Moll variety, but he is effective in his own way. He fits in with Jacobs' vision of the piece, painting with subtly light touches rather than broad brush-strokes. His Act 2 duet with Blonde is particularly winning, and he relishes every note of O, wie will ich triumphieren.

Robin Johannsen has all the equipment to deal with Konstanze's famously fiendish tessitura. She isn't an opulent old school Konstanze in the mould of Arleen Auger and she sounds shrill on the top in the coloratura of Ach ich liebte. Traurigkeit is much better, though, with some beautifully poignant tone, and she storms through Martern aller arten until some rather ill advised leaps above the stave towards the very end. Mari Eriksmoen is afflicted by similar shrillness at the top in Durch Zärtlichkeit, but she brings winning vivacity to Welche Wonne, and her way with dialogue is very winning; more sensual than any of the others.

So, almost despite myself, it’s two thumbs up for this release. The successes outweigh the failures, and it allows Jacobs’ series to go out on a real high. I still can’t listen to his recordings of the Mozart’s symphonies, but that’s a story for another day.

Simon Thompson

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