ESO’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail

This will be a short one. Salient points as follows:

  • Mozart in Mandarin and Min nan (instead of German recitative)
  • No English (or even German) marquee (the former I understand why not)
  • Local political issues infused into centuries old German opera
  • Quality of performances saves otherwise mediocre production
  • It snowed in Taiwan yesterday!

ESO is the Evergreen Symphony, or 長榮交響樂團. I’ve seen them a few times before, but am most looking forward to their upcoming concert with Mahler’s ninth on the program. Heard Schmalfuss’s Mahler 5 before, as well as some other things, and was pleased.

I thought this was some anniversary concert for the orchestra, but nothing on the (rather tacky) program said anything (that I noticed) to that effect. Old mainstay of the blog, the tenor 湯發凱 played Pedrillo, and a few other people I have seen before, like the bass 羅俊穎, who played alongside the former in last year’s production of L’heure Espagnolehe was our Osmin for the evening.

(The somewhat pared down) Evergreen Symphony under Schmalfuss? Pretty great. Delicate, clean, crisp, and playing as an accompanying band for the opera, they left the glory for the performers, who were also wonderful. The balance of humor and drama was quite good, and made me want to listen, but more on that in a moment.

Unfortunately, there were a few near-deal breakers for the evening. I would guess that in this endeavor, there were people making judgment calls that were thinking from the budget or corporate side rather than the musical or artistic one. For one, the greatest fault, we were in the concert hall, not  the opera house, so the ‘stage’ for the performers was the very rear of the risers behind the orchestra, who were obviously not in a pit. This setup, along with the intentional acoustic effects of the hall, meant that in some cases, it was very difficult to hear the singers in the crisp, clean, effortless way you would in the opera house, which was sad, because they couldn’t be nearly as expressive with their dynamics; they needed to be heard.  Everyone did their jobs very well, but adapting to the circumstances was a clear factor in the performance.

That’s coming from me as a fourth-time opera-goer, so take that for what it is.

That aside, I felt the production quality was…. mildly lacking. It’s funny, actually. Just last week, I listened to a coworker try to describe “willful suspension of disbelief” in English to a local coworker whose English isn’t great; I helped, but the concept came to mind last night. I mentioned above that it made me want to listen. For about the first half of the first act, I mildly regretted showing up. I’d gone because I have a friend who’d worked his tail off in the production, and because there are far too few operas happening around here. But my initial, overall impression upon entering the hall was “high school production.” There was a projected cartoon backdrop that moved and changed, and the staging was simple to say the least. While it’s not required to be magnificent or splendiferous in any way, it was the opposite of willful suspension of disbelief, primarily because I had to struggle to hear the performers, and had to read the Chinese marquee as fast as I could. I was not looking forward to two and a half hours of this.

However, I became engaged. The production design (whatever it’s called; the stuff on the stage and how everything looks) could have been 100% better, for sure. While I felt the performers each individually did quite an amazing job not only as musicians and vocalists, as well as actors, I personally felt that as a cast, they could have maybe had a more unified vision of the work, the individuality of the roles they played, personality, and I’d chalk this up to the director.

Criticisms aside, the Chinese (and Taiwanese!) dialogue was interesting. Much of it was adapted to very local, even slang, expressions and humor, incorporating current events, the most Taiwanese Mozart I’ve ever seen. While my initial reaction was that they shouldn’t mess with the original work, I very quickly thought that maybe Mozart would be pleased with this adaptation, if he could speak Chinese. It’s made more valid, more immediate, carries more import for the audience, and I think that’s an artistic decision that was at once very strategic (so they didn’t have to speak German the whole time or provide subtitles) and one that touched the hearts of the audience much more readily. Mozart relied on his own political satire, current events, points of comedy, etc., and I ultimately feel that that was a great decision. Hell, make it some other Asian country (I shall not say which) instead of Turkish or Middle Eastern pirates. Very interesting.

Ultimately, it was highly musical, well-executed from all the musicians: the singers, the chorus, the orchestra, conductor, even the spoken parts, but it could have had a much more engaging, inspiring overall design. At the very least we could have been in the right venue. But I’m not one to complain. As we walked out of the concert hall, I was very pleased to have gone, and the performance had me looking forward to Mahler 9 (and Mozart 41 on the same [huge] program) from the same orchestra with great anticipation. See you in March, ESO.

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