This season's San Francisco Opera production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail turned out to be one that kept pulling the attention back and forth between the stage and the orchestra pit. This was because, while Chas Rader-Sheiber had done an extremely effective job of staging what could be taken as little more than some Germanic low humor in exotic coloration, his efforts were consistently being matched by the musical strategies of conductor Cornelius Meister. Meister reminded us just how distant we now are from the bad old days when Herbert von Karajan aspired to a smoothly integrated orchestral sound, totally dismissing the possibility that the magic of Mozart resided in the sonic diversity of his instruments, even if they were not the rambunctious artifacts of his own period. This is music in which the sound of every instrument counts for something, not also in the rhetoric of the score but also in the unfolding of the plot. This goes far beyond the "Turkish sound effects" (which have less to do with the Turkish setting and more to do with what the Viennese thought Turkish music sounded like). The most striking application of Mozart's sense of instrumental color could well be the low horns in Konstanze's "Traurigkeit" aria, which say more about her sense of despair than any of the words in Johann Gottlieb Stephanie's libretto ever can.
Similarly, we tend to think of "Martern aller Arten" as the moment when Konstanze shines in all of her operatic splendor. However, when we start digging into the score, we discover that this aria is practically a sinfonia concertante in miniature in which the soprano voice is but one of the solo "instruments" (in a "first among equals" sort of way). By the time he came to Vienna, Mozart had two significant efforts in this genre to his credit (both in E-flat major): K. 297b for winds, composed in Paris in 1778, and K. 364 for violin and viola, composed in Salzburg in 1779. In this case the solo soprano is joined by the solo voices of the flute, oboe, violin, and cello (this time in C major), whose role in the "splendor" of the moment are just as critical as the musical and dramatic vocal performance. In this aria we have the potential hear Mozart's own ear for orchestration at its best, and Meister escalated that potential to dazzling actuality. San Francisco has a reputation for being a good place to listen to Mozart, and it was a real pleasure to hear yet another effort to enhance that reputation.