When the curtain goes up on Mozart’s “Die Entführung aus dem Serail” (“The Abduction From the Seraglio”), we are on the Mediterranean coast in the Ottoman Empire, at a palace where European captives are being held as slaves by a Muslim pasha. When the Ottoman Turkish overseer, Osmin, enters and sings about his rage against the Christian prisoners, he fantasizes about hanging them, impaling them on hot stakes and beheading them.
Mozart and his librettists wrote a comedy. But it is hard to listen to Osmin’s aria today and not think about contemporary nightmare scenarios of hostages and global conflict. An evening with “Abduction From the Seraglio” — first presented in Vienna in 1782 and opening Friday, April 22 at the Metropolitan Opera in a revival conducted by James Levine — reminds us that in the 18th century, when the vast Ottoman Empire was governed by the Turkish sultans in Istanbul, Mozart was one of many European composers fascinated by the relations, encounters and conflicts between Christians and Muslims.
It was an age of warfare against the Turks, full of the tensions between the Muslim and Western worlds. But “Abduction” may be an opera for our own times, too: an intriguing if disturbing model of how to understand — through the structure of music — the anger of an enemy and how to explore harmoniously the reconciliation of cultural difference.