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Wolf Trap's 'Zaide' an Intergalactic Failure

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N. Till, Mozart and the Enlightenment:
Truth, Virtue, and Beauty in Mozart's Operas

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Mozart, Zaide, Academy of
Ancient Music, P. Goodwin

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Mozart, Zaide (dir. P. Sellars)
In 1779, Mozart began work on a full-length Singspiel, without a specific commission but with the possible intention of submitting the work to Emperor Joseph II, who had plans to launch a German language opera theater in Vienna. He worked with a friend in Salzburg, the trumpeter Johann Andreas Schachtner, to adapt an existing libretto, Das Serail, based on Voltaire's tragedy Zaïre (which had already been parodied as Les enfans trouvés, ou Le sultan poli par l'amour by Biancolelli and Co. for the Comédie-Italienne at the time of its premiere). The young Mozart never finished the opera, but what remains of it is known as Zaide (ed. Friedrich-Heinrich Neumann, Neue Mozart-Ausgabe). When Mozart finally escaped Salzburg, he realized that the work was still not funny enough for Viennese audiences, who preferred comic operas, and shortly after began composing a similar but more broadly comic rescue opera set in a Turkish harem, Die Entführung aus dem Serail.

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.

Other Articles:

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)
This production used the first movement of the better-known G minor symphony, K. 183, instead, as the backdrop to an extended torture scene, for no apparent reason. The extant libretto does not even mention the torture and execution that Soliman will visit on the escaped slaves until they are recaptured in the second act. In fact, the first part of the opera emphasizes that the hardship being faced is the imprisonment of slavery, what Mozart felt he faced in Salzburg (and which Peter Sellars emphasized in his modernization of the opera). Soliman even laments that he showed such an easy hand with the young couple, and when he has them again in his power, he swears to be harsh.

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.


Matt said...

So... you liked it?

Charles T. Downey said...

I'm glad my true feelings came across clearly. ;-)

jfl said...

I think I disagree with this: "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..."

It's is *not* the job of a director (nor even remotely a realistic possibility) to pull the plug on any production-in-progress. They can interfere (though that's usually for the worse, too, no matter how badly things seem to be going in rehearsal), but they can't well pull the plug. It's their job to make sure they get a proper or good production -- and of course to learn from the failures that their best and most diligent efforts have here and there produced. Imagine someone like Gelb or Bachler sitting through a rehearsal of a, say, Neuenfels production and finding half-way through: "Nah, this is shit, let's kick it to the curb and ... ah... do a concert version of it." Nope... they have to grit their teeth, hope that the boos will be so loud so that it's a success, after all, or else hope it's soon forgotten, never to be revived again.

Kim Witman said...

I never doubt that you'll speak your mind, Charles. I'm just sorry that you had such an dispiriting night in the theatre. (Although "cosmically awful" and "intergalactic failure" do represent a pretty entertaining merger of our production and your opinion.)

I don't intend to engage you on the topic of your reception of the production, for as I'm sure you can imagine, this show prompted a bigger range of reactions than many others have. From enthusiastically positive (from some surprising quarters, even from some of our most traditional patrons) to violently outraged. There's very little in the middle. You are, of course, entitled to hate it.

The one thing I do want to comment on is your observation that we are doing harm to our young artists. On the contrary, we had an enthusiastic and emphatically strong response from the artists involved in this production throughout rehearsals and performances. It was/is challenging, no doubt. But one of the things we seek to provide is a learning - almost laboratory - experience that takes place within the confines of a professional production schedule. Sometimes we don't succeed as easily - the show comes off extremely well, but there's not a palpable sense that the singers made huge leaps in their development. In this case, they dug eagerly into this experimental staging, had a lot of input into the process, learned more than we could have hoped, and believed in their performances. As always, our main goal is to aid in their development, and we stand by this show and their work within it.

As for the rest of your review, well, maybe someday we’ll have some strong coffee and a lively debate. Have a wonderful summer!

Kim Witman

Charles T. Downey said...

Jens, I would agree with you 100% if this were a professional house. Singers are paid a fee, they are professionals, and you give the director absolute authority over what happens on stage. If singers really had a problem with a production they could withdraw from it, although legally the ramifications are heavy. In the case of a young artists' program like Wolf Trap, however, singers at the start of a career compete so hard just to get onto that stage that the fear of losing that place must be so strong that even the thought of protesting something that was demeaning or ridiculous might be unthinkable.

In just the last few years, singers have been asked to do some pretty uncomfortable things at Wolf Trap. As I wrote in the review, I know that Kim takes her role of fostering (and, yes, protecting) her singers very seriously, and I felt in most of those uncomfortable situations that the dramatic sense of the staging at least mitigated what could be seen as exploitation by directors. Not so in this case, where singers seemed belittled, diminished, for an absurd premise. Even in her defense of this production, Kim admitted to it making her squeamish and uncomfortable. That she did not do more to act on that revulsion seems a shame to me. At the very least, I hope it is something that gets discussed with the director before he is hired to do a future production at Wolf Trap. By writing that paragraph I know that at least someone said it.

Charles T. Downey said...

Kim, I'm very glad that you responded to this review. It helps me understand your point of view and why this production turned out the way it did. As I said above, I have no doubt that you have the singers' interests at heart, and I am glad to know that it was not simply a matter of the director imposing this interpretation on them, that they had input.

I still think, however, that when you put young singers in a ridiculous staging it can make them look bad. They may not even realize the potential of that happening when they are agreeing to do it. People with more experience in the field could guide them.

On the other hand, such experiences will certainly prepare them, if they go on to have major careers, for the absurd tosh that is often passed off as staging by opera directors everywhere.

Kristen K said...

I am a stage director who is just beginning her career. I saw Zaide and loved it.

Given that none of the four critics who have reviewed the production can seem to agree on any aspect of it - your assertion that the violence was ineffective versus other claims that it was overly effective / that it is brilliant, or that it is contrived - I wonder if the larger question should be whether arts criticism has any merit whatsoever. While I prefer your writing style to that of the other critics, your artistic prejudices seem to skew your ability to review with accuracy.

The acting was really good, which suggests that the directing was good. The staging (or blocking) was remarkably fluid, which also suggests good directing. You hated the concept. Okay. But you seem not to know what a director's many duties include. A shame. It's your job to know.

Charles T. Downey said...

I wonder if the larger question should be whether arts criticism has any merit whatsoever.

Some people might say the same thing about opera direction...

Certainly, writing a review is a subjective thing, so no one should be surprised that different critics write different things or have different attitudes. Criticism succeeds if it gets its readers -- other viewers and the performers and director themselves -- to think again about the performance, if it stirs up more argument. By those standards, I think, we have a success. On the other hand, I am not so sure that a staging that distracts so strongly from the work it is trying to stage can be called a success.

Kristen K said...

But really, no aspect of the story was left untold. All of the major themes are there. The muslim versus christian theme. The incest theme. The slavery theme, with a nod to Orwell and Foucault. And most importantly, the love between the two main characters was really quite touching.

I'm not sure you like directors much. Perhaps you should admit this prejudice at the beginning of reviews. If you would have preferred a pseudo-Moorish harem done in sandy tones it would probably be best to admit that up front. The fact remains that the style didn't work for you, and that's an acceptable subjective response, but the storytelling was excellent. And if you don't see it as your job to make that point, my subjective opinion is that criticism is pointless. Accuracy is more important than subjectivity.

Charles T. Downey said...

@Kristen K: How anyone could claim that "the muslim versus christian theme" was served by this staging, which was so manifestly not about Europe in the 18th century, is beyond my understanding.

My problem with this production had nothing to do with "not liking directors much." Indeed, anyone who is familiar with my reviews knows that I have praised some very non-traditional stagings and skewered some pathetically conventional ones. Part of "good storytelling" is knowing what story the work is trying to tell -- rather than what your directorial concept does -- and not undermining the work with your staging. In this particular case, negating even the pleasure of simply hearing a rarely performed opera was quite an achievement.