Last Friday I made my first trip to the Berkeley Opera, to see their version of The Abduction from the Seraglio, streamlined to the simpler “Seraglio.” My understanding is that Berkeley Opera freely updates the classics in ways that are meant to be true to the work’s spirit, which is an excellent niche; with San Francisco Opera looming across the bay, there doesn’t seem much point in just churning out cheaper, smaller facsimiles of the basics. This version is set in the post-apocalyptic future so beloved of set and costume designers, and most of the original relationships between the characters are retained right down to making the Selim character a non-singing part. But the effort to create a new ruined world consistently shifts the focus from the character’s emotions to the social structure around them, giving a final impression not of Mozart, or the Mozartean, but of some Mad Max/Bertolt Brecht hybrid, which would be quite enticing if it were more coherent.
Technically, the program claims that Seraglio is set in a “post-petroleum world, [where] oil is over, money is over” but it’s really not; even if oil is over, and apparently alternative energy sources are also over, that doesn’t mean money would be over, even if our current system has collapsed. Pasha Selim is now “Gorgeous Jerome” (Armand Blasi) and he runs the titular brothel and a poppy-based drug empire. The drug side is run by Osmin, his belligerently nasty assistant (Roger McCracken, whose low notes were almost inaudible). Connie (Konstanze, played by Sheila Willey) is a reporter who has gone undercover in the Seraglio and become addicted to opium with remarkable speed, having been there only a few weeks. Her boss and boyfriend, Beau (Belmonte, Andrew Truett, whose high-note vowels take strange form; someone should also remind him to remove his wedding band before going on stage) comes to rescue her, with the aid of Pedrillo, an odd-jobber at the Seraglio, and Blondie, one of the Seraglio girls. Then there’s Osmin’s dog, which is invisible and sometimes seems to exist and sometimes doesn’t. According to the program this dog stands for love, which I would not have guessed if I had not read the program. There’s also a little girl darting in and out of scenes. According to the program she is a “cheeky avatar for hope” of the sort that inevitably turns up in post-apocalyptic plays, though I might have taken a snarky street-wise child, in tatters and without family and living near or in a brothel, as the final evidence of ruin and corruption. If you’re going to imagine a bleakly ruined landscape, you should have the courage of your vision. This need for some little sop of pretended hope is the same sort of impulse that rewrites King Lear so that Cordelia lives and marries Edgar.
Amanda Moody and Ross Halper, who did the adaptation, give most of their attention to the social and business structure they’ve created, but we end up with a lot of what Wagner called “effects without causes.” It’s unclear how Jerome can be, again according to the program, “exploiting a numbed population” if money is over – what are they giving in exchange? Where’s the exploitation? Under the desolate circumstances, someone who provides sex and drugs in one convenient location seems more like a benevolent friend to mankind than some sort of exploitative overlord needing investigation. Jerome himself makes this point when Beau claims that he and Connie need to let the people know what’s going on in the Seraglio: “They already know!” he explodes, which doesn’t seem to give them pause over whatever it is they think they’re doing.
Connie has resisted the blandishments of Jerome, if not of opium. He offers her a rose, claiming that seven men have died to bring it to him to give to her; again, I’m not sure why a post-oil world would be without roses – I would think the lack of pollution would help them flourish, erupting through now useless highways in extravagant bursts of color. And if roses are so rare, I don’t see how opium poppies can flourish. The whole opium angle is a bad idea anyway. I very much enjoyed Pedrillo’s hymn to Thunderbird (set to “Vivat Bacchus! Bacchus lebe!”) but I don’t see how Osmin, who has all those opium by-products on hand, can really succumb so readily to cheap wine. Making Connie an opium addict is another instance of taking the focus off her emotional struggles; a drug addict is her addiction. Beau, unable to wait until after marriage to cheat, eagerly succumbs to a couple of hookers on his way to rescue Connie. You might think fidelity doesn’t matter much to them, until it becomes the focus of a lengthy duet when they are reunited, which makes Beau simply a hypocrite, which makes it difficult to hope he and Connie get back together.
The ending is either richly ambiguous or incoherent. Osmin, who is simply nasty instead of comically nasty, declares himself an independent operator and kills Jerome, who shortly comes back to life. Beau and Connie decide to stay at the Seraglio, either to work with Jerome or to report on him, I wasn’t sure which. And Beau turns out to be, not the son of Jerome’s enemy, but his own son, a development I was expecting as soon as Beau mentions his mother rather than his father. Forgiving your own son, even if you’ve just met him, is a completely different thing from forgiving the son of your enemy, but the whole forgiveness scene, instead of forming the work’s climax, barely registers.
Abduction into servitude in the Muslim world was an actual if exotic danger, as every reader of Don Quixote knows. Those doing the adaptation make a good point about the problems of setting the work in the current violently roiling Mideast, but switching from reality to the hypothetical overshadows the characters with a putative and frankly decorative world. The whole post-apocalyptic thing can work quite well – and I know because I’ve seen it many, many times – but it needs to be thought through a little more deeply and carefully.
It may sound as if I was in misery the whole evening. On the contrary! Such is the perverse appeal of theater-going that even while I was noting holes in the plot and characterization I was enjoying the charming singers and the beautiful music and, despite the sometimes overly strenuous updating, the often clever words. I found the evening quite entertaining, but I have to say that an entertaining mess is still a mess.