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  • Mozart22: A DVD Review Portfolio Funny Business: Comic Elements in the Mozart22 Productions
  • Emily Richmond Pollock (bio)

In the Mozart22 box set, comic opera is no mere funny business: rather, the directors of the productions reviewed here largely treat humor as a problem requiring mitigation. Is it possible that these directors are the latest inheritors of historic anxieties about comedy and music? Eighteenth-century critics worried that comedy was “beneath” music,1 and, as Wye J. Allanbrook suggests, the nineteenth-century “blind spot” about comedy was symptomatic of value systems obsessed with musical autonomy and “hostile to the comic spirit.”2 Alternatively, is the problematization of humor evident in these productions—which are more inclined to twist, update, and critique the operas’ comic thematic elements and characters than to simply play them for laughs—symptomatic of the broader issue of presenting historical comedy to contemporary audiences? The comic plot points, episodes, and characters of the five productions I discuss—La finta giardiniera, Così fan tutte, Le nozze di Figaro, Die Zauberflöte, and Die Entführung aus dem Serail—are imbued with new, darker subtexts, allowing directors to signal a self-consciously complicated relationship to what might otherwise be taken for granted. Has staging Mozart’s operas to create effective (or contemporary) comedy become increasingly difficult as the works age? Is there something fundamentally less enduring about comic works, and is a revisionist approach the only way to bridge the historical divide?

Running through these questions are some of the fault lines associated with debates over the contemporary staging of opera: the relationship between contemporary audiences and historical texts, the extent of directorial intervention, and the pervasive impulse toward irony in contemporary staging. Given the association of the Mozart22 project with the practitioners and practices of so-called Regietheater, the treatment of the comic in these productions is potentially revealing, inviting us to consider how humor from the past might be integrated (ironically or otherwise) into Regietheater, and, conversely, how the conventions of comedy complicate the task of a director eager to say something quite serious or critical about contemporary society.

Stefan Herheim’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail begins with a laugh—a child’s laugh, to be precise, accompanied by video close-up of a child’s hands. In a gesture that seems to foreshadow the production’s revision of the text, the hands crumple a sheet of paper, silencing the innocent laughter. What follows is comedy tinged by critique, darkness, and violence. Herheim and his dramaturg, Wolfgang [End Page 69] Willaschek, introduce all-new dialogue that universalizes the characters and establishes Belmonte and Pedrillo as psychological mirrors of each other, turning the Freudian farcical.3 “Wir sind doch zwei!” says Pedrillo; “Natürlich,” replies Belmonte, “doch bin ich dein Über-Ich!” (“But we’re two!” “Well, naturally, I’m your superego!”). A girl and a boy become another set of pint-size symbols, representing the adult characters’ inner children. And the ensemble that ends act 2 is staged to signal that the two couples are indistinguishable and interchangeable, singing in different combinations of embrace. With these mirrored pairs and interchangeable roles, Herheim’s production turns Die Entführung into a vehicle for an urgent critique of contemporary gender dynamics.

Always canny and habitually sardonic, the rewritten dialogue features instances of self-reflexive humor that are dark, even böse. For example, after Konstanze’s weeping “Welcher Kummer herrscht in meiner Seele,” Blonde mocks her mercilessly, referring directly to Konstanze’s tragic singing and drawing attention to the limits of genre:


Immer traurig. (Laughs) Immer in Tränen … Wer sich immer das Schlimmste ausmalt, ist stets am Schlimmsten dran … Sing mir davon kein weiteres Lied! … Warum Tragödie spielen, wenn wir alle nah in derselben Komödie sind?

Konstanze (incredulously):

“Komödie?” Ich bin dein Gewissen (Blonde scoffs) und habe wenig zu lachen.


Always sad, always in tears … If you always imagine the worst, that’s where you’ll find yourself … Don’t sing another song about it! … Why play at tragedy when we’re all together in the same comedy?


“Comedy”? I’m your conscience, and I have little to laugh about.



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pp. 69-79
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