N. Till, Mozart and the Enlightenment:
Truth, Virtue, and Beauty in Mozart's Operas
Mozart, Zaide, Academy of
Ancient Music, P. Goodwin
Mozart, Zaide (dir. P. Sellars)
In his book Mozart and the Enlightenment: Truth, Virtue, and Beauty in Mozart's Operas, Nicholas Till calls Zaide "Mozart's most personal, even autobiographical work," revealing the composer's "desperate state of mind in Salzburg during 1779 and 1780." The main character's name, Gomatz, is almost an anagram of Mozart -- indeed, he signed one of his letters as "Romatz" around the same time he was working on Zaide -- and he described his unhappy existence working for Archbishop Colloredo as "Slavery in Salzburg." As Till puts it:
Zaide, the vision who appears to him in his despairing sleep, is his muse: opera, or more particularly, German opera, whose portrait keeps the flame of hope alive in his breast. [...] German opera is unliberated too, an exile like Mozart, 'tearfully yearning for her fatherland' and for the savior who will rescue her. [...] The trinkets which Gomatz takes, and for which Zaide reproaches him, are the false lures of money which Mozart must resist if he is to serve his art without compromise. [...] Allazim is eventually revealed to be the father of both Gomatz and Zaide. Clearly, for Mozart, he represents his father, Leopold. Life Wolfgang, Leopold is a slave, although one who has accepted his servitude and relinquished the dream of freedom. But he is a slave with authority over Wolfgang, and has the power to help his son escape to fulfill his destiny, or to restrain him. (pp. 58–59)Unfortunately, not even the chance to see Zaide in an all too rare live staging is worth having to sit through Wolf Trap Opera's cosmically awful production, which is what I did at the third performance on Tuesday night. The singing was not the problem, although more than in recent years this cast was heavier on future promise than present polish. Tenor Nathaniel Peake certainly had enough raw power as a menacing Soliman, and Michael Sumuel did his best to keep Osmin's laughing aria Wer hungrig bei der Tafel sitzt light and comic in the heavy-handed context of this staging. Hana Park’s soprano had an overactive vibrato and a tendency to thin out in the high passages of Zaide’s pieces, which are heard from time to time in recital. The imprecision of tone made the high semitone groupings ("daß man Ihre") in Trostlos schluchzet Philomele, for example, an unappealing blur. Paul Appleby made a fine Gomatz, limited by a slightly nasal and unsure top. Daniel Billings must have felt ridiculous as Allazim, at least in this particular costume (something like a Rastafarian drag queen with a Borg laser eyepiece -- costumes designed by Mattie Ullrich), and seemed to force the bottom of his voice, pushing long held notes off pitch (like Sumuel and Peake, mostly concerned with singing as loudly as possible). The small orchestra, jam-packed into the tiny pit, played well under conductor Gary Thor Wedow.
Director James Marvel announced right from the beginning that this was not the slightly fanciful Turkish seraglio of Mozart’s libretto but a terrifying alien setting. It was a somewhat predictable follow-up to Marvel's staging of Monteverdi's Il Ritorno d'Ulisse last summer, which was also set in a futuristic hellscape, just more Mad Max than Flash Gordon. The concept was made clear during the overture, in which Soliman's servants -- three wraith-like specters, one with enormous claws -- tortured the inmates of their intergalactic prison with laser-pointer ray guns and other implements (set designed by Erhard Rom, with video and projections by S. Katy Tucker and lighting by Robert H. Grimes). Mozart did not get around to writing an overture for Zaide, of course, because it was generally the last thing he did in the composition of an opera. Charles Osborne, in his book The Complete Operas of Mozart: A Critical Guide, teases apart the documentary evidence about Zaide, including Alfred Einstein's suggestion (not definitive) that a one-movement, overture-like symphony Mozart composed around this time (K. 318, G major) was the opera's missing overture.
Anne Midgette, Anne Midgette revisits Wolf Trap's staging of Mozart's 'Zaide' (Washington Post, June 14)
---, Wolf Trap lets audience choose the ending to Mozart's unfinished opera 'Zaide' (Washington Post, June 10)
Terry Ponick, Wolf Trap's "Zaide" down for the count (Washington Times, June 13)
Tim Smith, Wolf Trap Opera lets audience choose finale for Mozart's unfinished 'Zaide' (Baltimore Sun, June 17)
Emily Cary, Costumer brings characters in Mozart's 'Zaide' to life (Washington Examiner, June 11)
How, after this completely invented and gratuitously violent farce of cruelty, the audience is supposed to turn around and accept the milder character of Mozart's actual opera, like Osmin's laughing aria, was a mystery. In such an environment, how could any of the characters appear to interact normally and trust others at all? What possible relevance, as Gomatz points out, does Zaide's Christianity have to Soliman as Ming the Merciless? And why, after this overture, when Soliman gets around to doing the torturing that is actually mentioned in the libretto -- but never actually carried out, nota bene -- does he turn to knives, pistols, and -- what else -- waterboarding? One would think he would call back the wraiths with the pain phasers. If Soliman's cruelty had been actually a little more like Flash Gordon, just a campy joke, the staging might have had a chance, but if we are to take the torture seriously, as the director apparently intends, any sense of dramatic verisimilitude is spoiled.
Most disappointingly, the company's director, Kim Pensinger Witman, musters a half-hearted defense of the production on her blog, but the fact is that she, as a level-headed person who takes very seriously her role of fostering young singers, should have pulled the plug on this terrible production. The director hurts not only himself, hoping to be daring and controversial but ultimately creating something that is merely bad: he makes these young singers, who have put their trust in the name and reputation of the company, look ridiculous. In fact, the violence so overshadowed the entire work that the other added gimmick -- the audience choosing one of the three endings to work left without one by Mozart -- seemed utterly superfluous. As long as the evening came to an end as swiftly as possible, how it ended hardly mattered.
There is one more performance of Zaide at Wolf Trap, on Saturday (July 19, 7:30 pm), for anyone who likes their Mozart with a generous serving of sadism.