To boldly go where no opera has gone before: Mozart gets 'Star Trek' treatment

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Though Mozart was something of a free-spirited guy (not quite the pink-fright-wig imp, however, portrayed by Tom Hulce in the 1984 movie "Amadeus"), he could have little been prepared — on, oh, so many levels — to see his 1782 opera "The Abduction from the Seraglio" turned into a "Star Trek" parody (perhaps "take-off" is a more appropriate word) set in outer space more than a few centuries down the road.

"Abduction" ("Die Entfuerung aus dem Serail," in the original German) was Mozart's operatic calling card upon moving to The Big City, Vienna, from his much less cosmopolitan, though ever charming and picturesque, birthplace of Salzburg.

But even though Vienna isn't where snow-covered Alps are found, it was where important careers were made, and no less a personage than Emperor Joseph II of Austria became Mozart's first important royal patron, launching him, at age 26, toward what we now know to be a "promising future."

Joseph II, interested in nurturing home-grown Austrian opera rather than the overly ornate Italian models that were flooding even Germanic markets, favored what was known as "Singspiel," a lighter style of opera with spoken dialogue akin to the Broadway musical theater of our era. And "Abduction," like Mozart's own "Magic Flute" to come, as well as a few rather more serious pieces, such as Beethoven's "Fidelio," were constructed in that hybrid style.

Being nothing of a Trekky myself — my knowledge of such matters extends barely beyond being able to distinguish a Vulcan from a Viking, a Klingon from Corporal Klinger, or a Romulan from Remus — I'm utterly positive that a large number of references and in-jokes in the Salt Marsh Opera's wildly inventive, if somewhat untamed, production — which opened Friday night in Old Saybrook's Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center — whizzed right past me.

This is a production in large part transferred from California's Pacific Opera Project, where it debuted several years ago. The artistic director of "POP" and the author of the libretto for "Abduction," Josh Shaw, serves as stage director for the current production, and Simon Holt, artistic director of Salt Marsh, is the musical director and conductor.

The narrative thrust is that three of Belmonte's (the William Shatner character's) confederates have been captured by Chancellor Selim, and the rescue mission is on. To say that this is a hugely physical production, especially for opera, is an understatement, and I marvel at the cast's ability to partake in all the energetic prankstering onstage while still able to sing the highly complicated, ornate music.

And gorgeous music it is, even for the aforementioned promising composer in his mid-20s. Holt coordinates everything expertly, and his orchestra never overpowers, even with unmiked singers; the orchestra plays astonishingly well throughout (this was the work that Joseph II thought had "too many notes in it"); and it's to this production's great advantage that the orchestra, though reduced in size, is as large as it is — especially for a regional mounting, where sometimes you might get an octet of instrumentalists, if you're lucky. (If this "reduction" were on the rack at Kohl's, it'd only be at 30 percent off, not 80 percent off.)

And the singing is superb. Tenor Brian Cheney, who originated this adaptation's lead role in California, serves up immense vocal power and my-gosh-that's-high altitude through to the opera's finale. And he absolutely relishes in the nonstop shenanigans that director Shaw assigns him, though one assumes that at least some of the shtick is improvised nightly. Cheney gives us a one-man mash-up of Il Divo, Comedy Central, "The Bachelor" and "Dancing With the Stars," and if some of his mugging is over the top (way over the top, especially when other significant action/singing is to be savored elsewhere onstage), let that be a semijustifiable sacrifice to an exhaustingly full theatrical realization.

Even higher vocal altitude, for obvious reasons, is written for the two leading ladies, Brittany Renee Robinson (Konstanze) and Sarah Callinan (Blonde), and they both dazzle with their virtuosity as well as their willingness to look the other way at notions of proper stage deportment. Callinan's body has been painted with a color I'll leave to the Sherwin-Williams palette to identify, possibly because her inclusion in the Mozart original as an outsider (an Englishwoman in a Turkish harem) gets channeled here.

And while we're at it, this adaptation's oblique querying of "whose galaxy is this anyway?" has obvious reverberances for today's world, where Muslims and Christians have been known to uneasily co-exist. I was surprised that, among the text's many pop-cultural references, there weren't more overtly political ones, though Mr. Trump did come up once or twice.

Tenor Robert Norman (Pedrillo) also performed in POP's original production, and while his vocalism can't quite match the level of the other principal soloists, he charms with the deadpan rendition of his role (and with his pointy ears). The magnificent quartet that these four characters sing toward the end of the evening's presentation (Mozart is probably the greatest composer ever of ensembles and finales) is thrillingly rendered.

Bass Andrew Potter (Osmin), Selim's right-hand guy, knows what it is to be given demonic roles (true basses, like Potter, have little choice), but Osmin is a comically sadistic creation, and Potter laps it all up vigorously. Though Christie Max Williams (Selim), the sixth of the soloists, speaks but doesn't sing, "Abduction" compensates by granting him the plot resolution, one that again may have something to say about certain contemporary views of certain religions.

The sonorous chorus is hardly bereft of lively activity, especially as clothed in Maggie Green's colorful, whimsical costumes and placed and choreographed amid the flamboyant though uncredited sets and props, all under Stephen Petrilli's fine lighting. It's a big plus that the entire cast enthusiastically commits to Shaw's staging, even in its excesses, but I might suggest that the cast save some of that energy to deliver the dialogue louder and a little slower, since a lot of the lines are pretty funny.

The Salt Marsh "Abduction" will be performed again at the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center at 3 p.m. Sunday. It also will be staged at 7 p.m. Oct. 14 and 3 p.m. Oct. 16 in the Pequot Museum Auditorium of the Mashantucket Pequot Museum.


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