Mozart, meet Agatha Christie.
The great composer's lovely little amuse-bouche of an opera, "The Abduction From the Seraglio," will assume a cloak-and-dagger, early 20th-century ambience -- mixed in with a little 1930s screwball comedy -- when it opens this weekend at the Benedum Center.
The Pittsburgh Opera, which is mounting only its second production of "Seraglio" since 1982, has cannily decided to import the Houston Opera's 2002 staging by James Robinson, who placed the action on the Orient Express, the fabled international railway service that ran from Paris to Istanbul between 1883 and 2009 and was the setting for Christie's famous mystery novel "Murder on the Orient Express."
This 20th-century iteration of "Seraglio" seems particularly apt, for reasons both dramatic and practical. The opera was usually staged in a dimly lit Turkish harem but now takes place in three small sumptuously appointed railroad cars -- en route from West to East.
"It had taken place in rather sedate gloom for some time, and no one had cracked the nut for comic brilliance," said Pittsburgh Opera general director Christopher Hahn, noting that the particular demands of "Seraglio" require a set that really moves.
"There's a sense of frenetic activity that's part of the fun -- and a lot of jiggling up and down" as the train clicks along the tracks, he said. "This is not your traditional stand-and-sing-your-glorious-yet-fiendishly-difficult Mozart aria kind of opera."
"Seraglio" is a "singspiel," in which the dramatic dialogue between arias is spoken, not sung. This dialogue is often spoken in English in American productions, although for this production, the Pittsburgh Opera has made the less-common decision to sing the arias in English, as well.
The small space of the cars requires a concentration of the action, hence "there's an enormous amount of business and a great deal of physical activity, moving backwards and forwards, prepping the martinis, moving from rail car to rail car."
Mozart wrote the opera 99 years after the Turkish siege of Vienna in 1683 sounded the death knell of the Ottoman Empire, igniting a fascination among fashionable Europeans for all things Middle East -- but in 2002, there were more complicated questions to ponder when mounting a new production of the work, noted Mr. Robinson in a phone interview from New York last week.
"It was right after 9/11, and we were wondering, how you address this whole clash of Christian and Muslim cultures without being too heavy handed?" he said. "We were really concerned about that, thinking, 'Oh, gosh, how are we portraying the Turks in this?' But at the end of the day, we said, 'Look, this production has nothing to do with that.' "
Indeed, faced with a relatively thin plot -- Spanish nobleman's lover and their servants are kidnapped by the Pasha and then rescued -- a light bulb went on.
"It really evoked for me something like a screwball comedy," said Mr. Robinson, artistic director of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in Missouri. There was the 1934 film "Twentieth Century," set on a long-distance train with Carole Lombard and John Barrymore, although the World War II melodrama "Casablanca," whose hero gets left at the train station, was another inspiration.
Indeed, the Pasha "could have been played by Peter Lorre or Sydney Greenstreet," he said.
The 1920s were the true glory days of train travel, and while the Ottoman Empire had all but vanished after World War I, the Orient Express was at the height of its glamour, transporting well-heeled passengers from Europe's capitals to the edge of Asia.
"It was going to be a little tricky to pull off, but we thought, perhaps something a little more contemporary, a train, and a Pasha with a foot in both worlds."
And somehow, a Pasha pouring martinis makes it easier for opera audiences to relate to the character.
"There's something about containing the energy in a small but luxurious environment," with simultaneous action taking place in three cars, Mr. Robinson said, which also eliminates the need for major set changes -- but there were other challenges.
The actual abduction of Konstanze, the heroine, counts for very little in the piece, and her rescue usually took place with a ladder.
"There's a lot of talk in the libretto about the ladder, and you start thinking, nobody is going to have a ladder on a train, what are we going to do about that?" he said. "But there are linen tablecloths in the dining compartment and sheets in the sleeping car, and we came up with the notion that they go on top of the moving train and drop this ladder through the skylight in the compartment."
After studying plans for trains of that era, they realized they needed the Pasha's private car, a butler's pantry and a dining car, plus two vestibules.
Moreover, Belmonte comes to meet the Pasha disguised in this production as an architect. "On a train there are lots of people coming on and off, so we have an architect that the hero steals his clothes from."
Once they started brainstorming, the possibilities seemed endless -- the chorus, for example, could be on a train platform, sending someone off on a journey.
Perhaps most important, "the whole point of it being on a train is that we're not picking sides.
Everything is in transition," Mr. Robinson said. "When people are traveling, it often feels like things are suspended. Plus, trains are sexy -- or at least they were sexy. Taking the Acela from Washington to New York is the least sexy thing I can think of, but it all used to be very luxurious and romantic."
The production reunites two former stars of Pittsburgh Opera's 2010 production of "The Barber of Seville," with David Portillo as the nobleman Belmonte and Paolo Pecchioli as the Pasha's right-hand man, Osmin. Lisette Oropesa, who sang the role of Konstanze at the Royal Opera House in 2010, makes her debut with the Pittsburgh Opera in the role of Konstanze. Another newcomer, Ashley Emerson plays Blonde, while Joseph Gaines, who was part of the Pittsburgh Opera's "Turandot" cast in 2011, returns as Pedrillo.
Mackenzie Carpenter: email@example.com or 412-263-1949.