Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Mozart: Zaïde (Medici Arts, 2008)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The DVD we watched last night was Mozart’s Zaïde, an unfinished opera he began in 1780 as a German-language Singspiel (i.e., an opera with spoken dialogue, a form later known in Austria and Britain as an operetta, in France as an opéra-comique and in the U.S. as a musical) but only wrote the first two of three projected acts. What survives are musical numbers with lyrics, and unfortunately the original libretto (except for the parts Mozart set) is also lost, so we don’t know how the librettist, Johann Andreas Schachtner, intended the piece to end. It is likely, however, since the piece was in the “rescue opera” genre (of which the most famous examples today are Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio and Beethoven’s Fidelio), it was supposed to end more or less happily, with the leads rescued from their captivity in the palace of the Sultan of Turkey (also the basic situation of Abduction, where it’s handled considerably better — and not just because Mozart actually finished Abduction) and the evil Muslims who kidnapped these good Christians to turn them into slaves (including, in the women’s cases, sexual slaves) get their comeuppance. The Wikipedia page on Zaïde summarizes the original plot thusly:

Zaïde falls in love with Gomatz, a slave, which strikes up jealousy and rage in the Sultan, who happens to also admire her. After capture she chooses a free life with Gomatz rather than a good life with the Sultan. Allazim encourages the sultan to consider Gomatz as a man, not as a slave. The final surviving quartet suggests Zaïde and Gomatz are sentenced to punishment or execution. This is where Mozart’s manuscript breaks off.

There are similarities with Voltaire’s play Zaïre (Zara) in which Zaïre, a Christian slave who had been captured as a baby, falls in love with Osman, the Sultan of Jersusalem. Osman wrongly believes Zaïre and another Christian slave Nerestan (Gomatz in Mozart’s opera) are lovers and kills Zaïre in a jealous rage and then kills himself. The elderly Lusignan, a prisoner of the Sultan (paralleled in the character Allazim) recognizes Zara and Nerestan as his children as she escorts him to safety. From the surviving arias we can deduce a few differences between Voltaire’s play and Mozart’s opera. By Act II of the opera Zaïde, Gomatz, and possibly Allazim actually escape, only to be captured once more. In the opera there is no evidence that Mozart intended to cast Zaïde, Gomatz and Allazim as a reunited family. Indeed, the original ending of Voltaire’s play may have been too serious for contemporary tastes and may have been a reason for Mozart’s leaving the project incomplete.

Also, for all his own burgeoning sexuality (Carter Harman’s chapter on Mozart in his short history of classical music notes that when Mozart was on tour he wrote letters to his wife Constanze telling how much he missed her, “and the text of the letters made clear in what way he missed her most”), Mozart was morally conservative and he was not about to compose a love duet for two characters who turn out to be brother and sister: Wagner he was not! The production of Zaïde we were watching was based on a production at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 2008 and was directed by one of the most infuriating opera directors of all time, Peter Sellars. He first made his mark in the opera world by directing John Adams’ contemporary opera Nixon in China — where, since he was working with a living composer and the two were actually collaborating, his stylizations were built into the drama and actually made sense — and doing three productions with the New York City Opera of the big operas Mozart wrote with Lorenzo da Ponte as his librettist: The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and Cosi fan Tutte. These were aired on PBS as videos in the early 1990’s and I quite liked The Marriage of Figaro, for which Sellars carefully picked modern-day equivalents for the class relationships of the characters in the original, but couldn’t stand Don Giovanni and Cosi fan Tutte because Sellars’ settings didn’t seem to relate in any way to the originals and seemed designed just to be arbitrary and “different.”

This production of Zaïde was staged live, and the operadis Web site speculated that the DVD was from the July 7, 2008 performance, which was the one broadcast, but I suspect it was a special performance staged in a studio especially to be filmed rather than an ordinary live show. It’s a dreary affair, set entirely in a makeshift prison with tin walls (the Wikipedia page said it was supposed to be a “sweatshop,” but it looked like a prison to me, albeit one that would seem all too easy to escape simply by kicking in the walls), and Sellars deliberately cast the principals, Ekaterina Kekhina as Zaïde and Sean Panikkar as her lover (definitely not her brother!) Gomatz, to look vaguely Middle Eastern, and all the other parts he cast with Blacks (I’m deliberately not using the term “African-American” because I’m not sure how many of them are actually Americans, though the three of the four who are actually credited — Alfred Walker as Allazim, Gomatz’ faithful friend and confidant; Russell Thomas as Sultan Soliman and Morris Robinson as his grand vizier, Osmin — also the name used for the grand vizier in Abduction — at least have Anglo-American names), which gives a rather sour racial cast to the proceedings. Lacking the original dialogue to get us from number to number, Sellars decided to have his cast members pantomime the action to music from Mozart’s incidental score to the play Thamos, King of Egypt, which he also raided to supply an overture (Mozart never wrote an overture for Zaïde and most productions use his Symphony No. 32 — he wrote the symphony, Zaïde and Thamos at about the same time), and what there is of the plot is a series of dreary-looking scenes in which the characters creep around the prison set, the good white people try to conceal themselves and ward off the advances of the bad Black people (though in Sellars’ staging there’s a sixth character, unnamed in the credits, yet another Black person in the Sultan’s entourage and one whom Zaïde for some reason actually seems genuinely interested in before she returns to Gomatz — and the fact that he’s cast with someone who looks quite a lot like the Allazim, Alfred Walker, bald-headed, clean-shaven and with a silly-looking skullcap, doesn’t help the verisimilitude).

The music is quite good and very Mozartean-sounding, but the only truly memorable numbers are Zaïde’s lament in Act I, “Ruhe sanft, mein holdes Leben,” and the final quartet, in which (at least in this version) the Sultan is waving a gun at both Zaïde and Gomatz, threatening to shoot him no matter what and shoot her too if she won’t have sex with him, and Allazim stands around helplessly — and all of a sudden, even having to fight Sellars’ stupid and boring production, the music takes off and flies in a way the opera hasn’t had before and makes one actually regret Mozart didn’t finish it. Zaïde can probably be best considered as the beta version of Abduction (though in that one the Sultan — a speaking part instead of a singing role because the singer Mozart intended to use fell ill and he had to use an actor instead — has a change of heart, pardons the Westerners he’s kidnapped and enslaved, makes a magnanimous speech of forgiveness and sends them back home) and it also features an aria sung by Gomatz to a picture of his beloved (a device Mozart later used far more beautifully and effectively in The Magic Flute), but comparing anything in Zaïde to any of the Mozart operas in the standard repertoire just shows how much Mozart progressed as a composer in the remaining decade or so of his life. As it is, Zaïde is a frustrating torso, too good to ignore completely but not good enough to work as a piece of entertainment in its own right — and, unlike such other famously uncompleted operas as Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann, Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina, Borodin’s Prince Igor, Boïto’s Nerone, Busoni’s Doktor Faust and Puccini’s Turandot, without a complete libretto to go by and without the recollections of Mozart’s friends to provide hints, doing much more with Zaïde than just performing it as the torso it is is not really possible.