Seductive Abductions - Die Entführung aus dem Serail - Mozart - Warsaw Chamber Opera 21 April 2018

Initially I think it interesting and instructive to briefly examine the rather exotic Polish-Turkish relations of the past. You may have already read this on a previous post but it remains extremely relevant and you may  have already come across it.

Over the centuries this fascinating and involved subject has had a profound influence on Polish history. This was especially true in the 17th century at the spectacular Siege and subsequent Battle of Vienna (12th September 1683) that witnessed the victory of the Polish Husaria or Winged Cavalry under the command of King Jan Sobieski over the vastly superior military forces of the Ottoman Empire under the Grand Vizier Merzifonlu Kara Mustafa Pasha. 

Historic relations between the two countries were initiated around 1414 with a Polish mission to the Ottoman Empire. Many wars followed over territorial claims in the Back Sea region. This was balanced in a way by supportive collaboration against the Habsburgs and the emerging Grand Duchy of Muscovy. During the Partitions of Poland the Ottoman Empire was especially, even uniquely, loyal to Poland. Turkey was the only country in the world that did not accept the Partitions. Many Polish emigrants settled permanently in Turkey. Even a Polish village named Adampol was founded by Prince Adam Czartoryski. 

Portrait of Krzysztof Zbaraski, Master of the Stables of the Crown with Turkish sabre and wearing a delia cloak

Let us reminisce aesthetically. In this production a great deal of trouble and expense was taken over the costumes and scenography with buying trips made to Istanbul to source appropriate fabrics . 

Fashions in Polish national costume (incorporating the notion of 'Sarmatism' if you wish) were greatly influenced by Turkey and Tartary in the 17th century, filtered at the time through Hungarian national styles. Polish ambassadorial missions and visits to foreign capitals were spectacular and opulent affairs, famous for their extravagance throughout Europe. The populace of Moscow or Rome thrilled to hundreds of sumptuously caparisoned horses dyed cornelian and white with ostrich plumes and silver breast-plates. They gaped at running janissaries and camels draped  in feathers burdened with the magnate’s travelling library. Horses were deliberately shod with loose golden shoes that flew from their hooves across the cobbles into the astounded crowd.

Polish Hussars or Winged Cavalry - from the Stockholm Roll (1605)

The Polish Rider - Rembrandt van Rijn 1655 
(Frick Collection)

Much szlachta wealth was worn on the person in the form of caps of fur and pearls, żupans of crimson damask, kontusz lined with silk and decorated  with studs of gold set with precious stones – rubies, sapphires, garnets, and turquoises. The żupan, derived from the Turkish caftan, was a long gown worn  below the knee made of a decorative, sometimes richly patterned fabric such as silk, worn only by Polish nobleman  usually under a garment called a kontusz. The kontusz was a long coat-like  garment  also worn below the knee in soft wool or fabric heavier than that of the żupan and lined with silk or fur with slit sleeves that could be thrown over the shoulders in summer. This uniquely  Polish combination was worn from the mid seventeenth century to the early nineteenth century. 

The assistance of at least one servant was required  to tie the long, broad silk sash in cloth of gold or silver known as the ‘Słuck belt’, decorated with delicate floral patterns. The men shaved their heads in a type of ‘pudding-basin’ style, occasionally leaving a long pony-tail dangling from the crown of a shaven skull. Despite fighting Turk and Tatar, these defenders of the faith, the ‘bulwark of Christendom’ rather perversely adopted the enemy’s spectacular oriental costume and dazzling military accouterments to the point where confusion of combatants sometimes reigned on the battlefield.

A Polish Coffin Portrait 
(a 'realistic' portrait of the deceased attached to the coffin in the 17th and 18th centuries and removed before burial) 
This one displaying a typical Sarmatian hairstyle

STANISŁAW TĘCZYŃSKI by Tomasso Dolabella (c. 1570-1650), estimated 1633/1634. 

A portrait of a Kraków voyevod, the last male representative of his family, who died at the age of 23. One of the most beautiful early Polish portraits. 

From the collection of the Potocki family in Krzeszowice.

Poland regained its sovereignty after the Great War. The flowering of a secular Republic of Turkey was welcomed in Poland and diplomatic relations were revived. Although this may appear unlikely, there were resemblances in the governing styles of  Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and Józef Piłsudski. During the Second World War Turkey adopted a neutral  stance and recognized the Polish government in exile, permitting the transit of troops and state assets to Poland. In the 1970s and 1980s there was abundant and significant private trade between individuals and citizens of Poland and Turkey.

To generalize, in modern times there is an ambiguous relationship between the two countries rather like the face of Janus. One face emphasizes the nature of the historical enemy with its predominantly Muslim population whilst the other considers the long-term harmonious coexistence of both countries. The strength of this gratitude is surely best illustrated by the magnificent  Moorish Room in the Palace of Kornik near Poznan whose design was based on the Alhambra in Seville. The room was built as a tribute to the unique Turkish support during the partitions of Poland. This historical background seems to play an important role in today's relationship.

Kornik Castle nr. Poznan

The Moorish Room, Kornik Castle (nr. Poznan)

The Moorish Room Kornik Castle with Sarmatian armour  (nr. Poznan)

I ask once again why this brief history lesson? 

It seemed to me singularly imaginative and appropriate to stage Die Entführung aus dem Serail - The Abduction from the Seraglio, a rarely performed opera by Mozart in Warsaw or anywhere else in recent years except possibly Glyndebourne. Yet it remains arguably Mozart's most popular opera. 

The aesthetic and musical significance is today possibly unrecognized or forgotten. One tends to forget how incredibly exotic visitors from foreign lands were considered to be in the Europe of the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth and even nineteenth centuries. Particularly Mozart recognized this in say his opera Cosi Fan Tutte. Even piano manufacturers incorporated drums, cymbals, bells and other orchestral 'jingly-jangly' devices into their instruments to create imaginative Turkish associations for the listener. 

The work was composed after Mozart’s rupture with Archbiship Colloredo and his marriage to Constance Weber. He married her three weeks after the triumphal premiere and of course the heroine is named Konstanza (sung delightfully and with virtuosic poise by the 'heroic soprano' Joanna Moskowicz despite a few minor lapses of intonation). Die Entführung aus dem Serail was the most popular work in the lifetime of Mozart. The Emperor Joseph II famously quipped on the night of the premiere:

'Too lovely for our ears, and far too many notes, my dear Mozart!' 

Mozart audaciously replied to the Emperor 

'Just as many as is necessary, Sire!' 

The opera however fulfilled his nationalist agenda in being the first opera in the German language. It brims over with the excessive exuberance of youthful genius. The brilliantly orchestrated turquerie overture was accompanied by dancing on the stage. A unique creative gesture among many by the talented director of the production, Jurij Alekjsandrow.  The Singspiel was sung in Polish and the arias in the original German - a pleasant compromise I felt. The opera treads a fine line between opera buffa and opera seria. 

Mozart wrote to his father :

'Vienna, this 9th day of May, 1781. My very dear father! I am no longer sufficiently unhappy to be in the service of Salzburg; today is my day of happiness.'

The composer was overjoyed to be at last independent and received this new commission. 

'The circumstances that will come together when the work is presented, and especially all other viewpoints so overexcite my inspiration that it is with the greatest enthusiasm that I run to my table to write, and with the greatest joy remain seated there” (1 August 1781). 

Gottlieb Stephanie, the Burgtheater inspector, was the author of the libretto libretto written on this already familiar subject. The generosity of the Oriental spirit was full of elevated emotion. Cruelty and barbarism (depicted quite brilliantly by Dariusz Gorski as Osmin, in love with savagery and the prospect of torture even to a comic degree) 

were contrasted with generosity and sensitivity of the role of the Pasha Selim played highly amusingly and in 'lionistic' and priapically growling and gesturing fashion by Piotr Pieron (Mozart gave the character no music, but why one must ask). The brilliant and highly original mixture of Turkish Janissary instrumentation and the conventional Western orchestra of Mozart's day was mostly convincing by Musicae Antiquae Collegium Varoviense under the musical direction of Marcin Sompolinski. However I yearned for a more abandoned and wilder sensual even sexual exuberance in its realization. But the lithe exotic dancers draping themselves lasciviously here and there gave a suitably erotic compensatory frisson to the entire performance under the creative choreography of Natalia Madejczyk.

Goethe wrote effusively and representatively of the reception of the opera:

'All the efforts we made to express the depth of things became futile when Mozart appeared; ‘The Abduction from the Seraglio’ dominated us all.'

Blonde was played with infectiously neurotic and irresistible high voltage petulance by Aleksandra Zakiewicz that I adored. 'I am an Englishwoman, born for freedom.' However in the farrago of the Oriental humour of Osmin's repetitions and alliterations and Selim's growling action, I did not fully believe in the ardent love for Konstanze of noble and  gentle tenor Belmonte (an aristocratic swain played by Jacek Szponarski in fine voice). I think the balance of 'buffa' and 'seria' was slightly awry in a production played mainly for the rich humorous elements.  

Mozart wrote: 

'Belmonte’s aria in A major… Do you know how it is rendered? The beating heart filled with love is already announced in advance by the two violins at the octave… We feel the trembling, the uncertainty; we feel the swollen chest rising up – this rendered by a crescendo; we hear the voice whispering, sighing, this rendered by the first muted violins with a flute.' 

Not sure the truthful passionate seriousness of love came across clearly - or did Mozart intend us to take it all rather lightly. He was only 24 after all and a party lover!

From the charisma and theatrical point of view, the entire show was stolen for me by Pedrillo played by July Zuma. A terrific communicative performance that ranged brilliantly from the slapstick to sentimental to high flown emotions and a vocal and expression filled flexibility to marvel at.  

The opera ends with a gesture of clemency on the part of the Pasha Selim and what one might call a 'vaudeville sequence' where the major characters come forward accompanied by a different instruments, singing 'He who is able to forget so much kindness is to be despised.'  Then the  wild 'Turkish music' erupts once again echoing the Overture. The noble and tragic were slightly uncomfortably married in this production to the light and comic. The universal human brotherhood with the Muslim faith was somewhat overlooked as a theme. However one must remember that audiences come out at night to be amused and possibly educated a little...there is no doubt they were satisfied on that level!

It has been 235 years since the first staging of Die Entführung aus dem Serail  in Warsaw. This production should be approached in the right festive spirit without narrow philosophical thought or a moralistic cap clamped to one's head. Holding an enlivening glass of prosecco in hand, this was a highly enjoyable evening of innocent entertainment. Opera to enjoy not simply survive! 

Musicae Antiquae Collegium Varsoviense 


  1. The article delves into the fascinating historical relations between Poland and Turkey, particularly during the 17th century, and how it influenced Polish history and aesthetics. The production of Mozart's "Die Entführung aus dem Serail" at the Warsaw Chamber Opera is brought to life through meticulous attention to costumes and scenography, reflecting the Turkish influence on Polish national costume during that era. For more details, visit Sound Engineering Courses in Chennai


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