One of the defining moments of the City of Vienna and may be of Christian Europe was the siege of Vienna in 1529 by the Ottoman troops under Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent. Vienna did not fall, but it went through rough time. The Ottomans fired their canons at the city, blew up parts of the city walls, thousands fell on both sides, among these many civilians who tried to flee the city but failed to make it through the enemy’s lines.
200 years later, Mozart portrays the Ottoman society in extremely flattering terms in his opera “Die Entführung aus dem Serail” (The Abduction from the Seraglio, K. 384). The Muslim ruler Bassa Selim is a polite and generous person, much more humane than the his Christian counterpart Belmonte. Bassa Selim understands that he cannot win the heart of Konstanze, in love with Belmonte. Both try to escape from Bassa Selim’s palace, and when they get caught, Bassa Selim decides to let them go even though he has been wronged by Belmonte’s father and would have every reason to ask for revenge.
Mozart wrote this opera in 1781-82, at a time when the Austrian society became interested in the “exotic” character of the Ottoman culture. The music of the opera is partly inspired by the music played by Ottoman military bands that went by the label “Janissaries music” in Mozart’s Vienna. Ironically, the janissaries were elite infantry soldiers, that distinguished themselves during the siege of Vienna.
Celebrating the love marriage
However the opera has another message, that was dear to Mozart: the love marriage. At a time when – mainly for financial reasons – arranged marriages were the rule for the nobility, but also for lower classes, Mozart had a different ideal. Attracted by the ideas of Beauty and Purity and Truth, Mozart saw himself lucky to have married his Constanze, whom he truly loved.
Mozart’s father Leopold had sabotaged several other relationships his son had initiated, and in this opera, love between Konstanze and Belmonte wins, while the power that Bassa Selim theoretically wields over Konstanze, is of no use to him. It also contrasts the genuine feelings that Pedrillo, Belmonte’s servant holds for Konstanze’s maid Blonde with the misogynistic views of Bassam Selim’s overseer Osmin, to whom Bassa Selim gave Blonde as a bride.
“Die Entführung aus dem Serail” is one of the few operas that Mozart wrote for a German libretto. It has many comical elements – like the complaints of Osmin and the dialogues between Osim and Pedrillo. And those are the reasons why I appreciate this opera so much: It’s light, it’s fun, the music is excellent and if I would rate its entertainment value on a scale from 0 to 10 it deserves 11 points! The recording I have is pretty old: The Staatskapelle under Karl Böhm recorded it in 1974… oldies, but goldies!
© Charles Thibo