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Brava! Opera stages a comic Mozart opus

When a powerful Turkish pasha catches sight of lovely American tourist Constanza, he hatches a sinister scheme to get better acquainted: He has Constanza and her friends, Blondie and Pedrillo, arrested on trumped-up charges of smuggling.

Detained in a country not well-known for coddling prisoners and in the custody of an irritable guard, Osmin, the three friends' precarious well-being depends on Pasha Selim's infatuation for Constanza and upon her willingness to meet his desires. Meanwhile, her lover, Belmonte, makes his way through the streets looking for her.

Intrigue and botched contrivances — along with some cross-dressing — ensue when Belmonte discovers his beloved's imprisonment and the foursome plan a daring escape in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's comic opera, "The Abduction from the Seraglio."

Commissioned by Emperor Joseph II, the composition is the first of Mozart's to be written in Vienna. He was 25 years old, and he was falling in love with Constanze Weber, who would become his wife.

"Turkish" music was the fashion of the day — the Ottoman Empire made inroads into Central Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries — and Mozart's "Seraglio" was characterized by unusual instruments such as cymbals, big drums, piccolo flutes and triangles, along with new and previously unknown techniques. It premiered in July 1782, and its virtuosic music and spectacular arias impelled it to become one of the composer's great masterpieces.

Brava! Opera and James M. Collier Young Artist Program will stage Mozart's full three-act opera "The Abduction from the Seraglio" at 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 16, and 3 p.m. Sunday, March 18, in the Mountain Avenue Theater at Ashland High School, 201 S. Mountain Ave. Tickets are $35 for reserved seats, $5 for students, and can be purchased at bravaopera.com or by calling 800-901-7173, ext. 3.

Heather Mathews, associate program director of opera and musical theater at San Francisco Conservatory of Music, directs the production. Mathews writes in her director's notes that she was thrilled when Brava! Opera Artistic Director Willene Gunne approached her, but she had to pause when she read the libretto translated to English by Donald Pippin of Pocket Opera San Francisco.

"In today’s political climate, would an opera about the arrest of Americans by Muslims possibly contribute in any way to Islamophobia?" she asked herself. "Would the Turkish characters be viewed as barbaric or less enlightened simply because they are Turkish? That did not sound like a production with a message that resonated with me. So I took a step back and started my detective work as a director.

"At its essence, 'Seraglio' is a classic commedia dell’arte rescue story with a damsel in distress. Its main theme is love. Love in many forms: heroic, romantic, forced, unrequited, humorous, enlightened and true. Once I knew that, I could hold onto the examination of love. It is universally human no matter where on Earth you hail from. I felt back on track."

A 13-piece orchestra made up of wind and string instruments, directed by Rogue Valley Symphony Artistic Director Martin Majkut, provide accompaniment for the principal singers, and a choral ensemble will sing and perform the percussion parts in the music on snare drum, triangle and cymbals.

Sopranos Ariana Wehr and Ashly Neumann, tenors David Walton and Ryan Connelly and bass Aaron Sorensen, who've collectively performed for dozens of professional opera companies in the U.S. and overseas, bring the colorful characters and hilarious plot to life.

Look for singer and actor — and founder and artistic director of Randall Theatre in Medford — Robin Downward to perform the role of Pasha Selim.

"Another aspect of this translation I appreciate is the bonding of the females’ characters and the contemporary #MeToo aspect of their outspokenness," Mathews says. "As Blondie states in retort to Osmin’s antiquated views: 'A woman is a woman no matter where she is from. And perhaps she does not want to be bullied and degraded, pushed around and treated like private property.'

"I know the audience will laugh often," she adds. "Often with empathy and at the many zany antics. I also know they will be moved by the extraordinary music being made and for its universal themes that hold true no matter where you are from."

Soprano Ashly Neumann and tenor Ryan Connelly in Brava! Opera's 'Abduction from the Seraglio.' [Photo by Cornelius Matteo]