Goons, Dames and Mozart: Hometown Tenor Debuts in Lyric Opera of Kansas City’s “The Abduction from the Seraglio” Reboot.

Inside the Seraglio nightclub, Belmont and Pedrillo (KC native Ben Bliss, LOKC Resident Artist Joseph Leppek, center) plot to rescue their lovers. Credit: Karli Cadel.

Lyric Opera of Kansas City makes “The Abduction from the Seraglio”—a story about love, about pride and about power—into a captivating rom-com set in the seedy back alleys of Hollywood. It’s a smart remake, originally for New Orleans Opera, directed by Alison Moritz.

These timeless elements translated on stage and beyond.

Pride, for one, in the Lyric Opera debut for Prairie Village-native tenor Ben Bliss, playing the rescuer Belmonte. It’s a role he is well suited to, considering that it was also the vehicle for his Metropolitan Opera debut and his European debut at Glyndebourne.

Love, for another, which elicited an involuntary “awe” from the audience when Bliss, at curtain call, presented his mother, Judy, a longtime member of the chorus, with a bouquet before he took his bows.

Power, too, financial or physical, to decide and shape an outcome. One of the most appealing (and more forward thinking) aspects of this plot is the way we can imagine and interpret the dynamics between the players and how that plays out in our own complex relationships.

And also staying power: with music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and original libretto by Gottlieb Stephanie, the work was exceedingly popular during its time (premiered in 1782). It remains a staple of the opera stage, generally in the top 20-30 for worldwide productions each year, though it’s only the the fifth most popular Mozart title here in Kansas City and throughout the world.

Both production and performances came together solidly, with a cast and orchestra up to the task of conveying Mozart’s challenging yet charming score, and the detail-oriented versatility of the design.

Michael Christie conducted the Kansas City Symphony. The orchestra sounded robust without overpowering and keen on its internal balance. In the few times the orchestra and singers disagreed about timing, Christie swiftly matched them up again.

By recasting the action in 1940s Hollywood, at a nightclub called “Seraglio,” Moritz and crew neatly sidestepped some of the troubling cultural issues from the original plot. It is sung in German, with English dialogue, and they made a few cuts for sections that haven’t aged well. Opera changes slowly (are we really still having debates about the appropriateness of blackface?) so successful, intelligent approaches to that problem are welcome.

It’s a youthful, buoyant work with an ambitious, energetic viewpoint. (Mozart was only 26 at the time, involved in his own love affair with his soon-to-be wife, Constanze.)

The cast and crew gave the work sparkling, partly-innocent panache: just some rich kids, caught up in something bigger and darker than themselves. Steven C. Kemp designed a versatile rotating set, with lighting by Anshuman Bhatia. They connected the grittier street scene with the opulence of a members-only diamonds-and-tuxedos vibe, exemplified by the elegant script of the “Seraglio” sign underscored by the pink glow of the seedier “Girls Girls Girls” emblazoned above the entrance to the club.

Bliss gets the lion’s share of the voice work and he’s developing a fine, sweet tenor with an earnest delivery. There’s a lot of opportunities to just plant and sing, but Moritz connived organic staging that centered the action without becoming static.

Osmin, the buffoonish micromanager of the nightclub, is well cast in the towering figure of bass Matt Boehler, who transmitted the frothing insecurity of a man driven by jealousies and a yearning for authority.

Though he bullies everyone, he saves a bulk of that ire for the happy-go-lucky Pedrillo, whose casual ease is a threat. Tenor Joseph Leppeck, LOKC resident artist, gave the role a clear timbre and cheeky enthusiasm. Playing off each other, Boehler and Leppek carry most of the comedy.

Kathryn Lewek is Konstanze, Pasha Selim’s captured songbird and desire. I enjoyed her interpretation: Konstanze may have given up hope of rescue but she still has her pride and her anger. Her supple voice had range and power and her control gave me goosebumps, even when I kind of wished for a little hysterical shrieking when she ranted at the Pasha, a woman on the edge.

I also wish there were more Blondes in opera, but that would probably mean even fewer operas: she’s practical and level-headed. Soprano Rachele Gilmore brought a feisty attitude to the role, with all the quick wit of the self-respecting best friend trope, and a bright voice that complemented Lewek’s warm tone.

They were strong in different ways. I mean, you gotta love the forthright way the ladies demolished the inklings of the men’s insecurities regarding the question of their faithfulness. When Pedrillo asks himself if Blonde is worth the risk; Blonde scoffs, “are you?” That’s my girl.

Matthew J. Williamson is the authoritative club owner Pasha, who shared a pleasing baritone timbre in the non-singing role, and balanced his tough guy assuredness with empathetic vulnerability.

Costume designer Mary Traylor went full lux with this production, melding two exotic styles: the tailored edge of the 1940s and billowing layers of Turkish influence. Konstanze, as the chanteuse, is stunning in floor-length, figure-hugging, sequin-covered evening gowns, while the nightclub girls are a rainbow of gauzy veils and jangling jewelry. The men are suited up with splashes of silk, while Osmin struts around with a showy sword stuck in the sash of his Club “Seraglio” uniform. David Zimmerman designed the wigs and makeup to complete the effect.

There’s a little too much effort with making most of the characters smoke. Yes, the gesture is appropriate to the 1940s, but watching non-smokers bumble around with lighting cigarettes didn’t help the verisimilitude.

What I’d love to see, in my heart of hearts, would be a company take even bolder efforts to evolve these wo

rks. Don’t just take out the offending lines; rewrite the lyrics. Don’t just restage the scenic design; reset the whole scenario. Opera fans love the “classics,” data shows, but what if they could be persuaded to love something even more. Shows like this prove it’s possible.

In the pre-concert announcements, LOKC General Director and CEO Deborah Sandler promoted the upcoming Explorations Series commission “…When there are nine,” celebrating the ratification of the 19th Amendment and invoking the name of Supreme Court Justice (and opera fan) Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Just the mention of her name roused applause: you don’t think Kansas City audiences are ready to see something that speaks directly to the stories of the 21th century?

Reviewed Friday, September 21, 2019. Lyric Opera of Kansas City presents “The Abduction from the Seraglio” September 25 and 27 at 7:30 PM and September 29 at 2 PM at the Muriel McBrien Kauffman Theatre. For more information visit kcopera.org

Libby Hanssen

Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She maintains the culture blog, “Proust Eats a Sandwich,” and writes poetry and children’s books. She holds a master’s degree in trombone performance from UMKC Conservatory and currently works at UMKC’s Music/Media Library.

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