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Two years ago, toward the end of the Libyan civil war, rebel forces ransacked the compound of Muammar Gaddafi and found, among other odds and ends (a mermaid chair, apparently his daughter’s), a photo album lovingly devoted to the dictator’s No. 1 crush, Condoleezza Rice. Gaddafi’s affections for the former secretary of state had been public knowledge since at least 2007, when he gushed in an Al Jazeera interview, “Leezza Leezza Leezza…I love her very much.” His feelings were apparently not reciprocated; Rice said she found it “weird and a bit creepy.”
A what-if romance between Gaddafi and his “African princess” would have made for a dynamite reworking of Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Mozart’s 1782 German-language opera about the abduction of a Spanish noblewoman by an admiring Ottoman pasha. Alas, the In Series, which has been commissioning new English adaptations of Mozart’s operas, hit on a different counterfactual based on another historical crush: that of Texas Judge Roy Bean, the self-declared “Law West of Pecos,” for English actress Lillie Langtry. Bean became infatuated after seeing a picture of her. Though he never met, much less kidnapped, her, his infatuation did cause him to rename the town he governed Langtry, where he meted out justice in her name.
Abduction From the Seraglio is the brainchild of librettist Bari Biern, a veteran of the Capitol Steps, that satirical musical troupe whose Washingtonian song parodies (“Harpin’ Bout the GSA”) are either zany or groan-inducing, depending on your tolerance for political geekery. The Wild West retelling we get here has the same flavor of self-aware cheesiness, which works for a small opera company with a limited budget: When the hero rides into town, barely keeping a straight face through his first aria, he’s straddling a prop horse head on a stick. In this version, Judge Bean, in the role of the pasha, has Lillie kidnapped while on tour and whisks her away to Langtry where he sets out to win his hostage’s heart. Hot in pursuit is Lillie’s boyfriend and tour manager Belmont, who hatches an escape plan with two servants, Blondie and Pedrillo, who have also been taken hostage.
The result is a sweet-natured and surprisingly faithful adaptation of Mozart’s singspiel, aided by a strong stable of singers. Heather Bingham and Joseph Haughton, as Lillie and Belmont, anchor the production; both have superb voices that easily fill the Source theater’s cramped space. And Jeffrey Tarr, as Roy Bean’s straight-edge enforcer Osmond (who breaks edge for—of course—a girl), dominates every scene with his foghorn baritone and severe Texas drawl. The cast rounds out with a chipper, vaguely cockney CarrieAnne Winter as Blondie and Nephi Sanchez, better than he was in the In Series’ recent Clemenza di Tito, as Pedrillo. As Judge Bean, Scott Sedar mostly doesn’t sing, but he does have a convincingly flinty Clint Eastwood squint.
Although the singing remains solid throughout, there are moments when the action drags (especially relative to most of the In Series’ abridged “pocket operas”) and the physical humor is either distracting or just doesn’t make sense. And the modest orchestration cuts back on Mozart’s rich score, from which its “Turkish” melodies call for percussive, brass, and wind instruments that the In Series’ chamber ensemble (hesitant, but decent) simply doesn’t have. Perhaps it’s a tribute to Mozart’s benefactor Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, who complained to the composer, probably apocryphally, that his opera had “too many notes.”