Published June 24. 2012 6:00PM Updated June 24. 2012 11:28PM
The Connecticut Early Music Festival ended its 30th season here Saturday evening with a going-away party for its followers: up-close seats at a lively, musically energetic opera.
To attend a Classical-era opera at Evans Hall at Connecticut College is period appropriate for early music, since the cozy confines of the comfortable little theater parallel the small opera houses of the 18th century. Virtually all of the 360 seats were filled for the festival's "Die Entführung aus dem Serail" ("The Abduction from the Seraglio"), and the enthusiastic response was both robust and well-deserved.
This 1782 opera was Mozart's first big hit, and its financial success convinced the composer to seek his fame on the stage. It was written as part of the Austrian emperor's pet project of commissioning operas in German "singspiel," with spoken dialogue between the musical numbers, like a Broadway musical. The festival production, led by artistic director and conductor Eric Rice, wisely set the dialogue in English to help carry the action and the humor.
Mozart capitalized on the appeal of Turkish exoticism that was popular in Vienna at that time, a fad that defied the constant military threat the Caliphate posed to the city itself. The exotic musical elements were chiefly percussive — cymbals and drums — and woven into the plot were lurid elements of harems, slavery and despotic cruelty. No opera libretto spends more time discussing torture in detail: Will you be flayed, boiled in oil, roasted alive, garroted?
The tale is simple: Pirates have captured the lovely Konstanze, her maid Blonde, and Pedrillo, the servant of Konstanze's paramour, and have sold them to the Pasha. Konstanze's true love Belmonte arrives to rescue her from the proverbial fate worse than death, while blood-thirsty palace functionary Osmin, who now owns Blonde, tries to block the scheme.
No one walks out of "Seraglio" without one topic on the lips: the performance of the character of Konstanze. Mozart gives the soprano one of his singular show-stoppers, the fiery, long and complex "Matern aller Arten" — a musing on, you guessed it, torture — and Saturday, Boston-based soprano Emily Hindrichs thrilled the audience with lightning flashes of coloratura, from deep in her chest soaring to the stratosphere.
Hindrichs seems to specialize in Mozart show-stoppers, having performed recently as The Queen of the Night at Opera Frankfurt in Germany, Opera Grand Rapids and Seattle Opera, and she left the audience shouting in delight. But hers were not all fireworks, as her gently sorrowful recitative and aria "Welcher Wechhsel herrscht in meiner Seele," with well-targeted vibrato, was a delight, with her big, tightly focused sound.
The four other principals provided a fine blend of voices. As Belmonte, tenor Aaron Sheehan had a ringing heroic voice, a perfect foil for Hindrichs; and as Pedrillo, tenor Jason McStoots sang with a more lyric ease, most winning in the simple strophic charmer "In Mohrenland gefangen war." As Blonde, Mystic native Teresa Wakim sang with a verve to suit her comic role, especially fine in her duet teasing Osmin. And as Osmin, bass Paul Guttry got to show off with the showy low Ds Mozart scored to delight the audience, and had all his comic double-takes down pat.
The small-scale production had all the right accents. The costuming was fine, with turban and pantaloons, and the directing worked very well on the tight stage. The blocking was most effective to augment Mozart's ensembles in the final quartet, where the couples are warily reunited, and the body language and pairings that shifted as the quarter unfolded helped bring the score to life.
The 22-piece orchestra played period instruments (no valves or keys), and Rice kept to carefully measured tempi, allowing the singers to stretch. Early in the performance, both sopranos tended to drift sharp in long passages, no doubt relying on years of pitch practice … in a pitch that did not match this orchestra's. The orchestra tuned to Classical-era pitch (A = 430 Hz), slightly flat by modern standards, and the singers adapted as the opera progressed.