United States Mozart, Zaide; Weber, Abu Hassan: Soloists, Queen City Chamber Opera, Isaac Selya (conductor), Cincinnati, Ohio. 26.1.2013 (RDA)
In 1799 Mozart was a 23-year-old, still unhappily employed by the Archbishop of Salzburg. A friend encouraged him to apply for a job to the court of Vienna with a comic opera as a sort of calling card. Mozart had barely put pen to paper when things were set in motion by a certain Johann Andreas Schachtner, a trumpet player and sometime poet who wrote a libretto of sorts for Zaide, a hybrid work with both the characteristics and structure of a singspiel—a comic play-with-music—and the loftier aspirations of a semi-serious opera about slavery.
The composer’s friendship with impresario and actor Emmanuel Schikaneder held the promise of a production in Vienna at the Theater an der Wien, so long as the work had laughs galore and a good part for the producer/boss. The young composer set out to work on his newest project in 1779 but soon gave up on his little singspiel, moving on to the bigger and greener pastures of The Abduction from the Seraglio—a larger work commissioned by the Austrian Emperor.
During the past 225 years performances of the partially-completed Zaide have been given all over the world, sometimes with symphonic movements of Mozart’s used as overtures, but always lacking the proper finale that we have all grown to expect of its composer.
In what may be the opera’s Cincinnati premiere, the enterprising Queen City Chamber Opera and its artistic co-director Isaac Selya used youthful exuberance and pluck to inventively address the issue of Zaide’s incompleteness in an imaginative shoestring production. Further, Selva pairs it with Carl Maria von Weber’s one-act ditty Abu Hassan, which becomes a continuation of the story of the Spanish captive who refuses to become a concubine to a Turkish sultan. Selva’s authoritative approach is innately delicate, light in the touch, alert to the subtleties and delights of both of these young works.
Mozart’s music for Zaide is sublime—and challenging. The arias “Nur mutig, mein Herze” and “Ihr Mächtigen seht ungerührt” are both showpieces, here effectively handled by baritone Conor McDonald (Allazim), who executes the many runs and wide intervals with stylish aplomb. Lauren Pollock-Cohen sings two of Zaide’s three arias (“Trostlos schluchzet Philomele” is unfortunately cut in this production) doing justice to both the ethereal lullaby “Ruhe sanft, mein holdes Leben” and the dramatic “Tiger! Wetze nur die Klauen” in the opera’s second act. Dashiell Waterbury—also responsible for the stage direction—is an earnest and lyrical Gomatz. As Solimian, tenor Daniel Ross is both funny and imposing in a pair of bravura stints written for the terminally-angry Turkish Sultan. The very good Christopher Brandon Morales as the buffo Osmin, a close relative to his namesake in The Abduction from the Seraglio, sings a delightful “laughing aria,” “Wer hungrig bei der Tafel sitzt.”
It would not be fair to give short shrift to Weber’s companion piece to the Mozart. For most of us only familiar with Weber’s Der Freischütz, the lighter-hearted Abu Hassan provides unexpected delights, its music joyous and singer-friendly. The flimsy plot revolves around a young Arab couple so in need of cash that they decide to “stage” their deaths in order to extract some compensation from the Sultan of Bagdad.
The company’s gifted young cast impress by singing contrasting roles in the second half of the evening. Meghan Tarkington is the very fine and humorously manipulative Fatima and Lauren Pollock Cohen is the royal consort from Hell. The male contingent features Chistopher Brandon Morales as Omar, Dashiel Waterbury in the title role and Daniel Ross as the bumfuzzled Sultan, with Conor McDonald completing the ensemble.
Kudos are in order for all 26 members of the orchestra, with special nods to the woodwinds and some beautiful filigree work from oboist Joe Bucci, bassoonist Joseph Merchant and cellist Laura Jekel. All the musicians and members of the cast have been trained at UC’s College-Conservatory of Music and remind us of the high standards CCM sets for its students. These young artists and their young conductor make one sit up and take notice, and many of us will be following their development with high expectations.
Rafael de Acha