Pacific Opera Project’s "Abduction from the Seraglio" cast at El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood, Calif. (Courtesy of Pacific Opera Project).
In the past year I have reviewed and thoroughly enjoyed Pacific Opera Project’s (POP) productions of “La Calisto,” “Tosca” and recently “La Boheme” (AKA The Hipsters). So when Josh Shaw the artistic director decided to feature a Star Trek inspired version of W.A. Mozart’s comedy “The Abduction from the Seraglio” to open their 2015 season, as a “Trekkie” (avid fans of the Sci-Fi franchise) I was excited to experience another creative, fun and irreverent opera production from his hands (he builds the sets), talented singers and creative staff.
Happiness turned to sadness when one week prior to opening night the world lost the creative genius of Leonard Nimoy whose character of Spock is one of the leading roles in his version of the opera. Needless to say that throughout the remainder of the days leading to Friday’s (March 6, 2015) opening night performance the presence of Mr. Spock was felt by many of the artists as well as those of us who would make up the audience.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart began work on “The Abduction from the Seraglio” on July 30, 1981 when he was just 25 years old and recently arrived in Vienna where most of the operas presented by the Austrian emperor Joseph II had been Italian ones translated into German. This work became the first successful, original German-language opera at the time and was produced in Vienna in 1782 with a United States premier at The Brooklyn Athenaeum on February 16, 1860.
The original story of the opera revolves around an attempt by the hero Belmonte/Captain James T. Belmonte (tenor Brian Cheney) and his servant Pedrillo/Mr. Pedrillo (tenor Robert Norman) to rescue his girlfriend Constanza/Lieutenant Constanza (soprano Shawnette Sulker) who has been kidnapped by the Pasha (Ottoman empire governor) Selim/Chancellor Belim (actor Gregg Lawrence) along with her servant Blonde/Blondie (soprano Claire Averill).
Pacific Opera Project’s version is a takeoff of the 1960’s science fiction series “Star Trek,” which was created by screenwriter, producer and futurist Gene Roddenberry and it includes many of the characters from the show such as the evil Klingons and the green complexioned Orion slave girls, amongst other favorites. With a new libretto by POP’s artistic director Josh Shaw who also directs, this production is literally out of this world.
We first meet our hero, Captain Belmonte as he confronts the evil Klingon Osmin/Obmin (bass baritone Phil Meyer) in a planet where they have brought their mostly women slaves but are stuck with no power in their space ship so unable to leave. Belmonte arrives and tries to get information on the whereabouts of the captives but Obmin threatens him with harm but eventually leaves. Subsequently Belmonte is reunited with his friend Mr. Pedrillo who was sequestered along with the women and they plan “The Abduction from the Seraglio” or should I say the rescue.
Tenor Brian Cheney knocked my socks off as Mario Cavaradoss in POP’s incredible production of the opera “Tosca” last year and he does not disappoint this time with his spot on acting and crystal clear, powerful voice as the womanizing Belmonte. His character’s persona is based on actor William Shatner as Captain Kirk in the original TV series whom he studied in depth for this role but he pushes the character into a hilarious, campy, over the top version of the original.
As the evil Osmin, bass baritone Phil Meyer is a revelation both as a singer and as an actor. His menacing presence (he is very tall) and powerful vocal range may put fear in his foes and fellow Klingos but he becomes putty in the hands of Averill’s Blondie character. He is sexually obsessed with the Orion slave girl and their scenes together are just pure opera magic as she tries to manipulate him in order to free herself. When I first saw soprano Claire Averill sing the role of Calisto in the outrageous POP production of the baroque opera of the same name she left an indelible impression. In this role, she is even better with that gorgeous, refined voice and dead pan acting timing that compliments so well Mr. Meyers’ talents.
The original “Star Trek” series was a pioneer in many levels and that includes the first kiss between a black and white actor – which was shared between the Caucasian Captain Kirk and the African-American actress Nichelle Nichols as Lieutenant Uhura. As Lieutenant Constanza, African-American soprano Shawnette Sulker tackles some very difficult coloratura arias with a fine, controlled voice as she refuses the advances of ruthless Chancellor Belim played with great detail by actor Gregg Lawrence who has chosen her to be his future wife.
As the half-Vulcan and half-human Mr. Pedrillo, tenor Robert Norman brought humor and vocal talent to his interpretation of the intellectual, cold fish character made famous by the late Leonard Nimoy as the original Mr. Spock. Whether persuading his nemesis Osmin to drink some wine laced with a drug to knock him out or giving into Blondie’s sexual charms as well as his own human desires, his performance was one of the highlights of the evening.
Adding to the production’s value was a very well rehearsed, full bodied chorus of Klingons and “colorful” female slaves who looked visually stunning thanks to the very creative costumes made by the talented Maggie Green who also brought us those furry, penis-wielding satyr costumes in POP’s production of “La Calisto.” They were all showcased against the very creative and inventive sets by Josh Shaw and “highlighted” (pun intended) by the clever and simple lighting design of Ryan Shull which in all harked back to the aesthetics and feel of the original television series.
Accompanying the singers on this voyage (pun intended) was the incredible 27- piece orchestra conducted beautifully by Maestro Stephen Karr (one of the founding members of Pacific Opera Project and its musical director) which sounded lush, crisp and provided great following to the singers on those very complex, coloratura arias that are part of Mozart’s masterpiece.
As artistic director Josh Shaw, the cast, musicians and creative staff basked in the well deserved applause and accolades from the audience, a very solemn and heartfelt tribute to Leonard Nimoy ended the evening. With an image of Nimoy dressed as Mr. Spock projected in the back scrim, many in the theater acknowledged and paid tribute to his talent with the Vulcan hand salute.
“Live Long and Prosper, Pacific Opera Project,” I’m sure would have been his response!