Mozart and Berio: An Odd Couple in New York

Mozart, Berio: David Robertson (conductor), Soloists, Ensemble ACJW, Zankel Hall, New York City, 31.3.2011 (BH)

Mozart: Zaide (Das Serail), K. 344 (1780)

Berio: Vor, während, nach Zaide (1995; New York premiere)


Ensemble ACJW

David Robertson, Conductor

Deanna Breiwick, Soprano (Zaide)

Paul Appleby, Tenor (Gomatz)

Jeffrey Hill, Tenor (Sultan Soliman)

Alex Mansoori, Tenor (Slave)

Kelly Markgraf, Baritone (Allazim)

Shenyang, Bass-Baritone (Osmin)

Duncan Edwards, Sound Designer

Travis McHale, Lighting Designer

Ben Rubin, Projection Designer

Joel Sherry, Set Designer


Admirers of Mozart’s operas are no doubt familiar with Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio), but I would wager many are not acquainted with his uncompleted opera Zaide, which has a similar plot. After the success of the former, the 24-year-old composer didn’t get around to finishing the latter. Fast-forward to 1995, when Luciano Berio, at the request of the European Mozart Foundation, wrote four brief additions to Zaide—an overture, a finale and two short sections in between. In this utterly fascinating evening at Zankel Hall, David Robertson and Ensemble ACJW presented a concert version of Mozart’s opera, complete with the Berio “glue.”

Using text by Lorenzo Arruga (b. 1937), Berio introduces the opera with a luxurious overture that would never be mistaken for Mozart, yet somehow shows a gentle respect for the elder composer’s work. In each of the four sections, Berio speaks with his own voice, yet the music is a strangely fitting complement to Mozart’s. Berio’s savvy scoring adds only three clarinets, a trombone and harp to Mozart’s ensemble, ensuring that when the overture begins, it glistens slightly in contrast, but doesn’t overpower the source. To further encourage Berio’s glance back in time, Arruga’s texts were projected above the ensemble in a way that gently underlined their ephemeral nature; the words were also written on three blackboards that formed the minimal set (designed by Joel Sherry) – blackboards that were periodically erased. Berio’s handiwork proves arresting and strangely compelling: as program annotator Elizabeth Bergman writes, “[Berio’s portions are] less an act of historical reconstruction and more a contemporary commentary.”

The young singers were all wonderful. Deanna Breiwick made an alluring Zaide, with Paul Appleby complementing her as a sweet, fresh-faced Gomatz. Jeffrey Hill was a suitably outraged Sultan Soliman. Kelly Markgraf as Allazim was onstage all-too-briefly, but made up for it beautifully in the final quartet, joined by the three singers mentioned above. Alex Mansoori did well in his brief turn as a slave. But the audience favorite was probably Shenyang (Osmin), who combined a robust bass-baritone with some entertaining comic timing when he and Hill did Der stolze Löw’ lässt sich zwar zähmen” (“The proud lion allows himself to be tamed and enchained”).

The ACJW musicians seemed completely consumed by Robertson’s enthusiasm, playing with verve in the Mozart sections, and making the delightful transitions into the Berio fragments sound completely inevitable. The result was one of the year’s most entertaining concerts – and moreover, one of the most thoughtful.

Bruce Hodges