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 Recording of the Week  Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail

Following acclaimed recordings of Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte and with performances of Le nozze di Figaro happening this week in Baden-Baden, Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s Mozart opera series continues apace with Die Entführung aus dem Serail, released last Friday on Deutsche Grammophon. One of Mozart’s early successes, the German-language opera which may or may not have prompted Emperor Joseph II to call Mozart out for writing ‘too many notes’ tells of an Englishman’s attempt to rescue his beloved from the harem of a Turkish despot – a veritable can of worms in terms of contemporary thinking about cross-cultural encounters, but the impetus of some of Mozart’s most exhilarating and technically demanding music.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Yannick Nézet-Séguin

As with the previous two volumes in this series, it’s the women who grabbed me rather more than the men; Die Entführung famously requires two top-drawer coloratura sopranos, and Nézet-Séguin has struck gold on both counts. With her flexible silvery tone and diamond-bright upper extension Diana Damrau is pretty much my ideal in the demanding role of Konstanze, switching from fire to ice in a heartbeat and as compelling in the long-breathed lines of the great lament ‘Traurigkeit’ as she is in the defiant pyrotechnics of ‘Marten aller Arten’. Glorious playing, too, from the Chamber Orchestra of Europe principals in the extended introduction to this aria; the concerto grosso-style writing for violin, cello, flute and oboe here sounds like a fabulous improvised cadenza, and sets the scene quite beautifully for Damrau to steal the show.

As her English maid – the improbably-named ‘Blonde’ – Anna Prohaska (whose songs of war so impressed me last January) plays a blinder; I have a fairly low irritation-threshold for tweeness in this role, but Prohaska eschews arch simpering in favour of a cool, no-nonsense imperiousness that audibly takes the wind out of Osmin’s attempts to dominate her. The deceptively fiendish ‘Durch Zärtlichkeit’ (in which Blonde explains to her captor that Western women can only be won with gentleness and finesse rather than brute force) is despatched with total insouciance, staccato top Es sounding as natural as breathing.

I’m going to come clean and admit that I can’t really warm to Rolando Villazon’s full-throttle Belmonte (perhaps I’ve spent too much time in the company of Ian Bostridge’s supremely elegant if rather less heroic Knight In Shining Armour on William Christie’s recording) but others may respond differently: some way more swashbuckling than most Entführung heroes, Villazon does genuinely sound like he’s capable of the necessary derring-do to storm the Pasha’s harem, and if the arias can sound effortful he packs a welcome punch in the ensembles (the men’s trio ‘Marsch, marsch, marsch!, as Belmonte and Pedrillo try to storm into the harem past Osmin, is one of my favourite moments in this opera, and it comes across with splendid blustery energy here).

The young Austrian tenor Paul Schweinester impresses hugely as Pedrillo; at times I wondered if he and Villazon would have worked better cast the other way around, as sounds like a more natural Mozartian and has a rather more glamorous sound than your typical character tenor. Here’s hoping he appears on future instalments, perhaps as Arbace in Idomeneo…?

What a luxury it is to have the great German bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff (recently retired from singing) in the spoken role of Pasha Selim; I’ll confess that I usually fast-forward through the dialogue sections, but his gravitas and sudden flashes of anger had me gripped throughout. He has an imposing if unusually cultivated-sounding henchman in the distinguished Wagnerian Franz-Josef Selig’s resonant Osmin, firmly sung even in the role’s lowest reaches, and less slapstick pantomime villain than many of his predecessors; there’s wit aplenty here, though, and his chalk-and-cheese sparring with Prohaska in their duet is a delight.

Mozart: Die Entführung aus dem Serail, K384

Diana Damrau (Konstanze), Anna Prohaska (Blonde), Rolando Villazón (Belmonte), Paul Schweinester (Pedrillo), Franz-Josef Selig (Osmin) &Thomas Quasthoff (Selim), Vocalensemble Rastatt & Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Yannick Nézet-Séguin

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