Opera, opera, opera

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  August 15, 2006

Peter Sellars made his name in the early 1980s with his daring, indelible productions of classic opera: Wagner, Mozart, Handel, Haydn. Lately he’s been concentrating on the creation of new operas, most significantly with composer John Adams. But in this 250th-birthday year, he’s returned to Mozart: the unfinished “Turkish” opera, Zaide, first in Vienna and now closer to home in Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart festival.

ZAIDE: For Peter Sellars, no Mozart without social content.
With festival director Louis Langrée brilliantly leading the usually directorless Concerto Köln, and five splendid American singers — Korean-born soprano Hyunah Yu, tenors Norman Shankle and Russell Thomas, baritone Terry Cook, and bass-baritone Alfred Walker (none of them white, but none of them mere tokens, either), Sellars was doing what he does best: taking powerful music seriously, responding to it with immediacy, and finding contemporary equivalents to show that dated plots can still have theatrical life and compelling ideas. Mozart abandoned Zaide in 1780 (at 24), without writing an overture or a finale, when he was commissioned to write Idomeneo, his first operatic masterpiece, after which he returned to the subject of Zaide in Die Entführung aus dem Serail (“The Rescue from the Harem”), like Zaide and later Zauberflöte a “singspiel” with spoken dialogue instead of operatic recitatives. One of Mozart’s great characters, Osmin, the malevolent/comic harem guardian in Entführung, had a similar function in Zaide, and the same name.

The libretto has been lost, but Zaide is worth attempting because it has such exalted music, including the heavenly soprano lullaby “Ruhe sanft,” a remarkable trio and quartet, and Mozart’s only experiment with “melodrama” (music underlining spoken speeches). Sellars fleshed out the score with music from another unfinished work, Thamos, König in Ägypten, contemporary with Zaide but foreshadowing the Masonic profundities of Zauberflöte, as overture and music for silent action. In 1977, the newly formed Boston Lyric Opera’s Zaide ended more conclusively with a chorus from Idomeneo. The inconclusiveness of the unfinished ending is part of Sellars’s point; Mozart, he says, just couldn’t tack on a happy ending. But there’s also an inevitable frustration factor.

Zaide is a story of human slave traffic. But the setting is here a tenement sweatshop. George Tsypin’s grimly elegant set shows four levels of sewing-machine rooms, locked metal doors, and steep stairwells; James F. Ingalls’s lighting design includes shocking fluorescent lights.

The New York performances, at the stylish new Rose Theatre, were preceded by panel discussions, with Sellars, about contemporary slavery. (“There are more slaves today than ever in human history.”) Quoting a comment by the NY Times reviewer that a Sellars production inevitably had “social content,” Sellars responded, “To present these composers without social content is the atrocity.”

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