Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Yesterday, Orchestra 2001 performed Mozart’s “Zaide”- an opera he never finished- with a new overture and finale by Peter Schickele and a new libretto by Mark Lord. Though the performance was limited by its small scale (no chorus, and no formal staging), Mozart’s genius shined through clearly.
“Zaide” is a singspiel, like “The Magic Flute,” meaning that there is spoken dialogue as well as arias, similar to a modern musical. Unfortunately, all the original dialogue has been lost. New dialogue was written by Mark Lord, which was frequently delightful, but sometimes startlingly anachronistic during the second act (such as an incident involving a cell phone), potentially limiting this version’s viability in a fully staged setting. In addition, “Zaide” contains two “melodramas”- sections in which the singers speak a text interrupted or accompanied by the orchestra. These and the dialogue was in English, but the arias were presented in their original German.
“Zaide” has a quite silly plot, but one typical for its time in its exoticism. Zaide (soprano Tamara Matthews) and Gomatz (tenor Timothy Oliver) are European slaves to the Ottoman sultan Soliman (sung by tenor Scott McCoy), and they fall in love. They try to escape with the help of an overseer, Allazim (baritone Randall Scarlata), but are caught. Soliman releases them to return to Europe when he finds that they are the children of Allazim (who, mysteriously, is not European), who saved his life years earlier. The fact that the lovers are brother and sister puts a bit of a damper on the joyful finale.
The cast was mostly excellent during the sung portions of the opera, particularly Matthews in her exciting aria “Tiger! Wetze nur die Klauen.” Oliver has an attractive, light voice, but sometimes seemed underpowered. Markus Beam was also good in the small role of Osmin. The one chorus, at the beginning, obliged the orchestra to sing while playing. Though they pulled this feat of coordination admirably, one was thankful that there was only one chorus in this opera. The orchestra, under the baton of James Freeman, played well, with an appropriately delicate sound,with the exception of a few ragged wind entrances.
Singspiel, particularly when it is in English, requires a measure of acting ability as well as vocal talent, and here the singers were more mixed. McCoy, a late replacement in the Sultan role, brought an excellent sense of timing and facial expressions to his dialogue, but Matthews was more stiff and Oliver somewhat bland. The staging, which included some costumes but no set and limited blocking, also made this more difficult, as Allazim urged Zaide and Gomatz to make a run for it, one wishes he had added “and be careful not to trip over the music stands on your way out!”
Schickele’s contributions do not blend in perfectly with the rest of the work, but he notes in the program that that was not his intention. The overture is enjoyable, except for a few awkward transitions and a section that recalls the overture to “The Marriage of Figaro” a little too closely. The finale, perhaps because of dramatic inertia, fits in more smoothly, and sums up the opera with a charming Mozartean smile.