Seraglio Commentary

The Abduction from the Seraglio Commentary


Various Escapes, Variously Accomplished

by Jeff Counts

It is a simple plan. Two ladders, one each for Konstanze and Blonde, to be placed under their windows at the appointed hour. The Pasha’s overseer Osmin has already been drugged with spiked wine so once the women hurry down said ladders and into the arms of their rescuers, it’s off to the waiting ship and then on to freedom. But, no. This is opera, after all, so of course the plan ends up being more of the “best laid” sort. The life the two women seek to flee is rather operatic too, in that it presents itself in only the broadest of strokes, leaving the gritty details to the imagination of the observer. As observers, thankfully, we are perfectly capable of filling in those blanks because, much like Mozart and his late-18th century contemporaries in the ideological West, we have cultivated lifelong fascinations with the exotic cultures of the world. So it goes without saying that Turkish harems, in all their depraved glory, are something we have no trouble imagining.

The centuries-long reign of the Ottoman Empire was well into its slow, fatal period of decay in 1781 when Mozart chose it as the subject of his new opera. But even as shadows of their former selves, the Ottoman Sultans could still ignite the creative passions of artists throughout Europe. The Viennese, given their relatively close proximity to the Turks and the fact that Ottoman armies had twice banged on their very own gates, were especially susceptible to enchantment by the lore of the exotic East. In fact, The Abduction from the Seraglio was not Mozart’s first attempt to set a harem rescue story to music but he had ceased work on Zaide in 1780 to take up Idomeneo and never returned to his original Turkish-themed singspiel, at least not in name. The Abduction libretto was remarkably similar to that of Zaide (some call it the first draft of Abduction) and the familiarity it generated did not end there. In crafting the story of Abduction, Gottlieb Stephanie drew upon the previous work of Christoph Friedrich Bretzner but he could have chosen from any number of harem escape narratives from the previous two decades. Stephanie apparently used Bretzner’s Belmonte and Konstanze without telling him. Bretzner’s reaction was predictably stern but both men’s debt to the wealth of other sources spinning about during that time makes for a decidedly complicated web of provenances. Present in just about every version of the popular seraglio story were echoes of two extremely influential Ottoman historical figures.

Suleiman the Magnificent (or “the Lawmaker,” depending on your perspective) ruled the Empire from 1520-1566 and his life coincided with the true zenith of his people’s supremacy. Zeniths being what they are, however, the steady decline of Ottoman hegemony also began with Suleiman. In this, though, he had help. Suleiman was a poet and a conqueror who possessed the entirety of the Balkan peninsula (he nearly took Vienna as well in 1529) and no less than 300 hundred concubines. Most notable among his collection of enslaved women was one Roxelana, a red-haired beauty of Ukrainian heritage that came to Suleiman by way of capture in Russia (present-day Poland to be exact) and selection in Constantinople. Beyond the more obvious hardships (these are among the things we can surely imagine), the realities of life for someone like Roxelana in 16th century Turkish bondage involved the negotiation of specific hierarchies within the harem. Four chief concubines maintained order over the lower ranks and vied for the right (if indeed it could be called such) to bear the Sultan’s heir. Roxelana started at the bottom but rose quickly once she caught Suleiman’s eye. She was savvy enough to keep his eye and soon became his favorite and then his only consort. Roxelana appears to have been a quick study in her new culture and before long, her capacity for intrigue and manipulation led to the death of the two most likely challengers to her future son’s ascension. Marriage to Suleiman and freedom from the harem soon followed, making this once-modest daughter of an Orthodox priest the most powerful woman in the Empire. Rather than run, Roxelana had escaped her fate by simply rewriting it.

Mozart’s Pasha Selim was clearly drawn from the legacy of Suleiman (the analogous character in Zaide was in fact called “Soliman”) and the “victim” aspects of Roxelana’s persona seem to have been split equally into Konstanze and Blonde for dramatic purposes. The 16th century setting of Abduction also points to the royal couple’s story, even if the Mozart/Stephanie account takes a very different path to conclusion. This difference is emblematic of the afore-mentioned “fascination” with Turkish exoticism and the desire of many western artists to read a recognizable measure of nobility into the characters they created in homage. In The Abduction from the Seraglio, Selim is a hot-blooded but thoughtful monarch, one capable of mercy even against great pressure from his inner circle. In this way, he is not so far from Suleiman. The real Sultan certainly followed his heart with Roxelana, to the shame of his entire court, and in all ways he was the last remotely salutary leader of the Ottomans. After he died, the fish truly began to rot from the head with a succession of spectacularly terrible Sultan’s, each more inept and morally corrupt than the last. Roxelana’s truth was more problematic for Mozart and the others who attempted to modernize her. In the dramatic arts of 18th century Europe, the lighthearted “rescue” plot was still king and the story of an ambitious woman who didn’t require a liberator to “re-abduct” her just wouldn’t do.

Mozart was interested in escape himself in 1781. His jailor was his boss, the Archbishop of Salzburg Hieronymus Colloredo, a man Mozart “hated to the point of madness.” Employment as a musician by an Archbishop or any other provincial aristocratic ruler in Mozart’s day meant knowing one’s place. This meant waiting to be called before entering a room, taking one’s meals in the kitchen with the hired help and generally performing on command like a pet. It probably felt like indentured servitude to Mozart and though it is an uneven parallel to be sure, he must have harbored a bit of kindred frustration with the Turkish slaves he embodied in music. Mozart’s letters to his father from the period show how deeply he longed for the welcoming arms of Vienna, where he knew musicians of his caliber were treated with commensurate respect. The Archbishop had just included Mozart in his retinue on a trip to the capital city and, in that heady atmosphere, the composer could not help but misbehave. He did so often and even caused a scandal by walking straight up to the Russian Ambassador at a soirée and striking up a conversation, which was unheard of even in liberal Vienna. The impertinent behavior eventually earned Mozart a dismissal from Colloredo’s court and also a (quite literal) kick in the pants on the way out the door. It was worth it. He left Salzburg for good, settled in Vienna as planned and found his fame almost right away. His first major success there and the symbol of his own personal rescue plot was, fittingly, The Abduction from the Seraglio. Clearly, there are many ways to become free in this world, whether you choose to climb up or down.

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