Resurrection of a Masterpiece
Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Zaide
Luciano Berio: Vor, während, nach Zaide
Deanna Breiwick (Zaide), Paul Appleby (Gomatz), Jeffrey Hills (Sultan Soliman), Alex Mansoori (Slave), Kelly Markgraf (Allazim), Shenyang (Osmin)
Musicians of The Academy (Ensemble ACJW), David Robertson (Conductor)
Duncan Edwards (Sound Designer), Travis McHale (Lighting Designer), Ben Rubin (Projection Designer), Joel Sherry (Set designer)
D. Breiwick (© Deanna Breiwick)
Many years ago, when first hearing the soprano aria “Ruhe sanft, ein holdes Leben”, sung by Kiri te Kanawa on a Colin Davis recording, I felt certain the supposed composer was an error. This couldn’t be Mozart, I thought. The orchestration, with its plucked strings, was too advanced, the song with its octave leaps was too daring. Could it be an outtake from Ariadne? Even Rosenkavalier?
Yes, it is Straussian–strikingly so–but until last night I had never realized that the opera from which it is taken has at least three or four other arias, trios and quartets worthy of the best of Mozart. And the ACJW–which usually restricts itself to music of this century–along with conductor David Robertson–who can make any century’s music a star event–proved that Zaide is a very great Mozart creation.
Great music, but with serious reservations as an opera. First, Mozart probably never wrote an overture, and certainly didn’t even compose a third act, leaving his characters dangling literally at the point of a sword wielded by a very evil Sultan. Second, while the melodramas with orchestra are preserved, we have none of the recitatives which would have unified the opera.
Thus, we have, near the beginning, a man lying down, a woman looking at him and singing, and immediately the two strangers come together for an affectionate arietta. Not even the worst libretti would have done that.
(I was going to say a “love duet”, but the story would have ended with the two as brother and sister Mozart knew enough not to make their joyful duo too passionate.)
For this performance, Luciano Berio, who has transcribed, created and re-created composers from Purcell and Bocherini to Schubert and Puccini, tried to interpolate some highly contrapuntal, definitely 20th Century music here, albeit with strains of Mozart under the complex fabric. This, with written poems dealing peripherally with Mozart.
I love Berio, but personally don’t think it fit here at all. The reason? Because, with all its omissions, and truncated story, Zaide has such resplendent music that lily-gilding, while a good Berio trick, was neither needed nor appropriate.
And that music was absolutely gorgeous. Yes, the aforesaid first aria, sung with musical technical beauty by the young Deanna Breiwick. Technically, it was splendid singing, easily taking the intervals, singing with a luscious legato. Missing, though–and this will inevitably come in time–was the mystery, the personality, the emotional depths of the aria. One felt that she was a lovely soprano. One never felt that this was Zaide, a woman kept in the harem of a vengeful Ottoman ruler.
Ms. Breiwick gave vent to more personal emotion in her “tiger” aria berating the Sultan and then recalling her youth. Here, the soprano showed all the spirit which makes this such a spirited opera.
For yes, Zaide is not easy to classify. The first act is straight operetta, the second act is an emotional melodrama (and the third act, like the end of all Mozart’s opera would have been reconciliation.). It is also one of the “Turkish” operas, so beloved by Mozart and Rossini. Here, though, the Sultan is no figure of fun. He prides himself on being “as evil as I am good.” His emotions and passion turn from love to hatred But he is no figure of sarcasm, like Rossini’s Mustafa. His two arias are seriously despotic, seriously emotional reactions
One would expect these to be baritone or bass pieces, but Mozart was too subtle. By giving them to a tenor, Mozart perhaps showed the man was still in the prime of youth. And by singing them seriously, without even a hint of exaggeration, Jeffrey Hill gave character to this mean-minded despot.
Zaide’s true love (in the first two acts, later to become the brother) was sung with exaltation by Paul Appleby. Appleby and their accomplice, Kelly Markgrave, had a delicious almost homoerotic duet of thanks, leading to one of the most beautiful passages of the opera, the First Act trio.
Zaide, her lover-brother and their co-conspirator sing of their escape not with exaggerated suspense, as Rossini would have done, but with a joy, a major-key song of freedom. Mozart, when he needed, could indeed make the heart beat higher, and in the last allegro of the trio, one felt this was the finest opera.
Yet the final quartet, tragic as it was with the “good guys” facing death, was Mozart at his peak. One need make any allowances for “middle period” Mozart or the operetta form. Zaide is afraid of death, her brother offers her courage, the slave laments their faith, and the Sultan gets set for his vengeance.
To say that the ACJW orchestra was good, or that David Robertson was a meticulous and feeling conductor is superfluous. Both the ensemble and the leader have never done a poor job, and the joy of this rare creation was foremost.
Shenyang (© Courtesy of the artist)
Nor could I ever forget the singer Shenyang in his one aria. The second act may be a Singspiel though it often sounds like an opera seria. With a single exception. This is an aria so unreservedly hilarious that Rossini’s Figaro and Mozart’s Papageno would have envied it. Shenyang, as the slave Osmin, sings a strophic ditty about ein ganzer Narr–the perfect fool. I.e. the man who “whines, moans, screams, curses”. He is also a laughable fool, and bass-baritone Shenyang used all his full-bodied voice and delicious sense of humor to guffaw, giggle, bray and explosively stutter “h-h-h-h-haha” with prestissimo velocity. The Tianjin-born singer obviously has the chops for the heaviest repertory, but this song was an uncommon delight in an uncommonly delightful opera.