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June 17, 2010

Wolf Trap Opera lets audience choose finale for Mozart's unfinished 'Zaide'

Usually, when the words "unfinished" and "Mozart" appear in the same sentence, people are talking about the "Requiem" the composer was working on when he died. Wolf Trap Opera has provided a welcome reminder of another incomplete gem from Mozart's pen, "Zaide," a singspiel from 1780 that never saw the light of stage during his lifetime.

What has come down to us is a colorful, rather dark story (Johann Andreas Schachtner devised the libretto) about a sultan named Soliman, who loves his slave Zaide, who loves fellow slave Gomatz. With the help of Allazim, a high-ranking slave, Zaide and Gomatz escape, only to captured and threatened with death. At that point, after a terrific quartet for those four characters, the story ends. There's no clear evidence what denouement Mozart intended.

So the Wolf Trap presentation allows the audience to vote at intermission during each performance for one of three possibilities -- happy, happier and downer. (The final performance is Saturday.) The night I saw it, the bleak option won, with the implication that Zaide and Gomatz would be executed after the curtain fell.

That finale certainly fits the often gritty edge in this imaginative production, which looks like a lost episode of "Dr. Who" -- Erhard Rom designed the cool set, S. Katy Tucker the sci-fi projections, Mattie Ullrich the high-fantasy costumes -- and which emphasizes the violence and oppression in the story. If the opening scene of beatings doesn't register, the water-boarding in the second act will.

There's a sense of overkill in that initial scene. Since Mozart didn't compose an overture for "Zaide," the ominous first movement of his Symphony No. 25 has been put into that service, used as a musical soundtrack to the sight of slaves being constantly pummeled and pushed around. It all goes on much too long.

Still, director James Marvel's concept has 

its logic and integrity, and the cast of young professionals jumps into the action with admirable force. As is typical with Wolf Trap productions, this "Zaide" delivers a vital, visceral experience. (The company's director, Kim Pensinger Witman, notes on her blog that she has "had more honest and provocative conversations with our patrons than I’ve had in years.  Some are intrigued and others are outraged.")   

Nathaniel Peake uses his mostly firm tenor to vivid effect as Soliman. As Gomatz, Paul Appleby, another promising tenor, maintains an elegance of style even in the music's most tormented passages. Hana Park, in the title role, could use more tonal creaminess in the upper register, but her phrasing is always sensitive. Daniel Billings reveals a robust baritone and lots of musical personality as Allazim. Michael Sumuel is a vibrant presence as Osmin, the Sultan's nasty slave dealer. The slave chorus (a quartet, in this case) adds vocal and theatrical flair to the performance.

Conductor Gary Thor Wedow keeps the score moving very effectively (too quickly, for my taste, though, in the sublime soprano aria "Ruhe zanft"), and he gets an agile response from the orchestra.

"Zaide" contains a lot of wonderful music. A lack of completion (was a third act in the plans?) does not make it less worthy of being staged. Wolf Trap Opera has certainly made a provocative case for the piece. One thing's for sure: You won't feel neutral about it.

Photo by Kim Pensinger Witman courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:34 AM | | Comments (0)

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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