The ad for the In Series season opener, a Wild West adaptation of Abduction from the Seraglio, has Mozart in a Stetson.
And that might be all you need to know about the fun and strangely reverent version of the opera at the Source Theater in D.C.
What was once a piece about the abduction of a woman and her servants by a Turkish pasha, is now the extreme action of none other than the West’s legendary Judge Roy Bean, such a superfan of the English performer Lillie Langtry that he kidnaps her following a Dallas performance.
In real life, the two never met. But the rootin’ tooting’ update by D.C. playwright Bair Biern was inspired by watching a replay of William Wyler’s “The Westerners” that featured Walter Brennan’s Oscar winning performance as the Langtry-addled Bean, such an admirer of hers that he named his town and saloon after her.
…quality opera in an intimate setting at reasonable price.
Surprisingly, Biern didn’t have to adjust much of the story or lyrics to the new time and setting, though she’s writing it in English, or what passed for it in the Old West.
Rather than stretching for puns and complicated laughs, she sticks to basics of the emotion at hand with the occasional amusing Americanized line. In a gallows scene, for example, the black hatted villain sings, “I’m so happy that I’m singing’ / By tomorrow, you’ll be swinging’ ” — knowing that the effect will be ultimately bludgeoned by repetition required in the score.
Mozart reportedly had problems with the original libretto by Christoph Frieddich Bretzner and Gottlieb Stephanie, insisting that whatever it did, it should adhered to the music first and foremost. That’s the case here as well.
It hardly matters that the opera be transported to Texas or to Tanzania, though, as long as it keeps its glorious music, and, graced with a tasteful little orchestra and plenty of stirring voices, this Abduction will steal your heart.
Soprano Heather Bingham sings the Lille Langry part with the kind of soaring authority that makes her instantly believable as an international star of her day.
Tenor Joseph Haughton plays her lover and tour manager who has been out seeking Langtry since her disappearance, doing so with an amusing hero’s blank naiveté, a Dudly Do-Right of the West, looking in his comic approach like Steve Carell in blonde wig and white hat. But again, he has the vocal goods to carry the much loved early-Mozart songs.
The show’s standout is Jeffrey Tarr as Judge Bean’s gruff main security man, whose deep bass suits his role and his songs. The fact he can throw in a Western accent and occasional yodel while doing so makes him perfect for the adaptation.
But there are delights all around, from CarrieAnne Winter, who plays Lillie’s maid, to Nephi Sanchez, a splendid comic presence as her boyfriend.
The high point comes in act two, when a terrific quartet of Bingham, Haughton, Sanchez and Winter is followed by another showstopper by Osmond.
Special recognition is also due to a quartet of Marta Kostian, Sarah Anne Silers, Emily Kester and Alexandra Linn, who sing, dance and play double duty as flirty showgirls and rough cowhands (and have to change costume constantly in between). Angelisa Gillyard does their choreography.
Tom Mallan’s direction keeps the tone just right — amusingly exaggerated slightly but never to the detriment of the music. The idea for all those involved is that of a fun evening.
Jonathan Hudspet’s set is economical as it fulfills its duty, mostly by playing the orchestra behind the windows and swinging doors of the Jersey Lily Saloon, a perfect solution that make it seem like there is activity behind the swinging doors. The crisp sextet under the direction of Stanley Thurston are dressed in Western gear as well, fulfilling visual as well as musical roles.
The towering Scott Sedar makes quite a figure as Bean, though his role is singular in the cast as non singing (which is probably for the best; when he starts in an old timey song with banjo and harmonica, it’s not just jarring in genre but in pitch).
Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio is a “singspiel,” which means the characters can speak as well as sing, which helps keep the pace and the humor coming. It leaves time for Biern to indulge in colorful Western speak (“I’d rather have a sarsaparilla with a scorpion!”) to knowing references to “Brokeback Mountain” and the odd references to the original German libretto (“She’s so happy, she’s singing German” someone explains when Lillie takes up one famous phrase from the original). There was just one groan in the audience opening night, when Osmond wonders how he’ll greet his beloved after her abduction (Of course: “Hi Lillie, Hi Lillie, Hi Lo?”).
But it’s all forgiven in the glorious singing, amplified so much by close proximity. Once more In Series delivers with a quality opera in an intimate setting at reasonable price.
Running Time: 2 hours plus a 20 minute intermission.
The In Series presentation of Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio continues at the Source, 1835 14th St NW, Washington DC through Sept. 22. Tickets are available here or 202-204-7763.