A Close Look At Osmin’s Aria From Mozart’s Abduction

Some operatic characters interest us for their psychological complexity. Osmin, on the other hand, fascinates us with his brute simplicity—he is unfailingly suspicious, ill tempered, and xenophobic (except on the one occasion when he relaxes his principles and allows himself to drink). Ironically, however, his suspicions are indeed correct—Belmonte and Pedrillo are trying to trick the Turkish court and “steal” the European women! Perhaps we can conclude the following: the dull suspicious man may often be right, but he doesn’t get much fun out of life. Anyone singing Osmin’s aria “Solche hergelauf’ne Laffen” should enjoy Mozart’s letter to his father of September 26, 1781, (no. 426 in Emily Anderson’s edition) for its explicit remarks on his crafting the music to this aria to express the character of Osmin, through its accelerating note values, and change of key at the end. Rarely does a composer of the Classical era offer such a glimpse into the compositional workshop.

This aria is particularly rich in silences—rests with fermatas abound. Dare to make these long—they compel the listener’s attention. Outside of a staged production, it is up to the singer to decide what the rests may mean. For instance, the fermata after the first “Laffen” may simply be a way of showing how much wind Osmin needs to get out six and a half continuous measures, with vehement trills, melisma, and crescendo. You may sing it easily, but perhaps Osmin does not! The fermata allows for an exaggeratedly long breath before continuing the sentence. As for the fermatas at the final “doch mich trügt kein solch Gesicht” of each verse (bars 31 and 84), perhaps Osmin wants to fool Pedrillo into believing his rant is finished so that he can unnerve him when he suddenly (and loudly) resumes. In any case, the slower the adagio and the longer the fermatas, the greater the surprise when the tempo suddenly snaps back to allegro.

Notice the descending motif in the violins that accompanies the repeated phrase “uns auf dem Dienst zu passen.” Does it represent the sneakiness that Osmin attributes to Belmonte and Pedrillo? If so, it would allow us to sing softly, contrasting with rude accents on “mich” in the phrase “…doch mich trügt kein solch Gesicht.”

In arias, Mozart seldom writes dynamics or articulations in the voice part. In many cases, however, the markings in the orchestra may be shared by the voice. For instance, the legato marking in the orchestra of the phrase “Ich hab’ auch Verstand” suggests Osmin’s complacent (and misplaced!) pride in his intelligence. From an acoustical as well as an interpretive standpoint, legato is valuable here: low pitches are hard for the ear to interpret and a legato delivery—as much of the notes as possible on the vowels—make them easier to hear.

Whenever a text presents a list, one should look for ways to give the items individuality. In the case of “Eure Tücken…Ränke… Finten…Schwänke…,” the meaning of the words are close, although “Ränke” and “Finten” (wiles and feints) suggest sneakiness, and “Tücken” and “Schwänke” (tricks and pranks) suggest actual actions. The sounds of these words, however, are delightfully varied. Mozart’s music places a silence on the first syllable of each of these nouns. Therefore, one can take the time to relish the initial consonant sounds of these words without danger of falling behind rhythmically.

Mozart was justifiably proud of his bold decision at the aria’s end to throw over its main key, meter and tempo as a means of characterizing Osmin’s loss of self-control. But the stormy character of the passage should not mislead us into trying to produce an effect through loudness. Fast notes simply do not allow us to sing very loudly. The accompaniment is marked piano, albeit with stabbing little accents. Please notice that Osmin, who protests his own intelligence, suggests that Pedrillo be “first beheaded, then hanged!”

The German offers two problematic passages. (Let me acknowledge freely that I sought help from two sophisticated native speakers, both of who remarked on the archaic and ambiguous German.) In the phrase, “mag ich vor den Teufel nicht,” the words “vor den Teufel” are an interjection, akin to our “by the devil.” The meaning is “by the devil, I don’t like you (you good-for nothing, women-chasing fops)!” Also, “Denn ihr ganzes Tun and Lassen ist, uns auf den dienst zu passen” means “because all you do is to spy on our employment.” (“Tun und Lassen” is an idiom. “Aufpassen” a verb with separable prefix.)

Joseph Smith

Joseph Smith is a highly respected New York coach, particularly known for helping singers with difficult and unfamiliar scores.