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Friday, April 1, 2011

Opera Review: Unfinished Mozart

Zaide at Zankel Hall
An unfinished portrait of Mozart, circa 1786.
Painted by the composer's brother-in-law Joseph Lange.
On Thursday night, David Robertson led the Ensemble ACJW in a rare performance of Zaide, the two-act Mozart singspiel that counts among the composer's unfinished operas. For this concert, Mr. Robertson combined the Mozart fragments with Vor während nach Zaide, a sort-of completion of the work by Italian composer Luciano Berio. This concert marked the New York premiere of the Berio composition.

Arias from the first two acts of Zaide are all that is left. They were discovered among Mozart's papers by his widow Constanze. But the torso of an opera (Mozart planned three acts) remained unperformed until 1866. One aria, "Ruh sanft, mein holdes Leben" has gained prominence as a concert number. But the work remains a rarity. With the addition of Mr. Berio's music, not so much a completion as a contrasting series of short tone poems inspired by Mozart, the work becomes a fascinating theoretical exercise in what might have been.

Mozart was not a composer to let his good ideas go to waste, and much of Zaide was recycled into later operas. You can see inspirations for the plot (a harem escape) in his completed, hugely successful singspiel, The Abduction from the Seraglio. Much more interesting are the passages that presage Die Zauberflöte. Listening to Zaide, one can hear melodic fragments and hints of the source material for that other "Z" opera. And that alone makes this an invaluable work to hear.

Mr. Berio's interludes and orchestral music were interleaved throughout the evening, serving as curtain-raisers, intermezzi, and a final comment on Zaide. The modern works were mostly instrumental, incorporating lyric poetry recited in Italian, a series of choristers scribbling noisily on chalkboards, and a presentation of the dialogue, digitally projected in white letters on the wall above the orchestra. The juxtaposition was musically effective.

Mr. Robertson led an enthusiastic performance of this work, stopping the orchestra on a dime and conducting with pin-point precision. He was blessed with a young, vigorous cast, featuring soprano Deanna Breiwick in the title role. Zaide is a harem girl who escapes the seraglio with her beloved Gomatz (Paul Appleby). Ms. Breiwick posseses a pleasing, lyric instrument with a hard, silvery edge. Readers of this blog might remember Mr. Appleby from a February performance of The Bartered Bride at the Juilliard School. He has an appealing onstage manor, and sang in fluid, easy, German. He was well-suited to the melodrama passages, spoken German monologues performed over Mozart's music.

The parts in Zaide are short, but that did not stop the rest of the cast from making strong contributions. City Opera veteran Kelly Markgraf brought an agile baritone to the role of Allazim. The promising bass Shenyang (seen recently as Colline in the Met's 2011 run of La bohéme, was a fine comic presence as Osmin, a character who was later recycled into the opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail. As the sultan, tenor Jeffrey Hill made the most of his aria. His outburst of rage recalled another, more celestial ruler: the Queen of the Night.

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