24 September 2016

CD REVIEW: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — ZAIDE, K. 344 (S. Bevan, A. Clayton, J. Imbrailo, S. Jackson, D. Jeffery, J. McGovern; Signum Classics SIGCD473)

IN REVIEW: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - ZAIDE, K. 344 (Signum Classics SIGCD473)WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756 – 1791): Zaide, K. 344Sophie Bevan (Zaide), Allan Clayton (Gomatz), Jacques Imbrailo (Allazim), Stuart Jackson (Sultan Soliman), Darren Jeffery (Osmin, Zaram), Jonathan McGovern (Vorsinger); The Orchestra of Classical Opera; Ian Page, conductor [Recorded at the Church of St. Augustine, Kilburn, London, UK, 10 – 13 March 2016; Signum Classics SIGCD473; 1 CD, 77:54; Available from Signum Records, Naxos Direct, Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

When the twenty-something Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart abandoned the torso of a Singspiel without a head or limbs, the work that later musical meddlers would christen as Zaide did not even have a name by which to call herself. Begun in Salzburg in 1779, ostensibly in response to Hapsburg emperor Joseph II’s launching the prior year of an initiative to bring opera in German to the German-speaking inhabitants of imperial Vienna and with the intention of laying siege to the Austrian capital with a stage-ready Oper auf Deutsch in hand, the work that would eventually answer to the name Zaide was conceived as a Turkish-themed Singspiel in three acts after the fashion of similarly-scaled works by Ignaz Holzbauer and Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf. Whatever Mozart’s intentions for his orphaned Zaide entailed, work on speculation could not supersede endeavors with guaranteed financial reward. When Karl Theodor, the deep-pocketed Elector of Bavaria, offered a commission for an opera to be premièred during Munich’s 1781 Carnival season, it was therefore ‘Auf Wiedersehen’ to Zaide and ‘Benvenuto’ to Idomeneo, re di Creta. As it turned out, Idomeneo proved to be as useful a vehicle for Mozart’s introduction into Viennese musical circles as Zaide might have been, word of its success in Munich drifting eastward over the Alps and infiltrating the Emperor’s inner sanctum by the time that Mozart arrived in Vienna with the goal of settling permanently in the city. Whether Mozart purposefully avoided resuming work on Zaide, as seems most likely, or merely never got back round to it can only be conjectured, but a fallacy that can be definitively dispelled is the notion that the score was merely a blueprint for the later Singspielen Die Entführung aus dem Serail and Die Zauberflöte.

Zaide and her pair of more widely-known siblings share notable qualities, not the least of which is exceptionally elegant writing for voices, but it is interesting to observe that Mozart’s completed numbers for Zaide did not find their way into other pieces. Imagine Händel’s ‘Lascia ch’io pianga,’ which began its long life as an instrumemtal sarabande in the early opera Almira, Königin von Castilien and recurred with a slightly different text as an aria in Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno before assuming its now-famous place in Rinaldo, being consigned to neglect in an unfinished score! Even as a youngster, Mozart possessed an uncanny ability to unerringly separate the musical wheat from the chaff, and he surely knew that the numbers that he wrote for his experimental, Turkish-themed Singspiel were of fine quality. Händel and Rossini would not have allowed a piece like Zaide’s ‘Ruhe sanft, mein holdes Leben’ to languish in silence, especially if they were drawing musical portraits of a Konstanze and a Pamina. In her extant music, Zaide’s value is easily discerned, yet transforming even the most obvious merit into sounds of comparable quality can be an unexpectedly strenuous challenge, one never fully met by previous recordings of Zaide despite the presence of several very accomplished individual performances among them. Ignoring how prior generations of performers and performances have suggested that Mozart’s operas should sound and relying upon Mozart himself for guidance in recreating the singular sound worlds of his works for the stage, Classical Opera’s ventures set new benchmarks by returning the immortal Wunderkind’s music to the parameters of his invention. Here, at last, is Zaide wholly as Mozart knew her when he capriciously cast her aside.

Their affinity for performing Mozart’s early operas with period-appropriate principals that are as fun as they are inherently right for the music previously exhibited in phenomenal Signum Classics recordings of Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots, Mitridate, re di Ponto, and Il re pastore, Classical Opera and conductor Ian Page here turn their attention to Zaide with a recording that would effortlessly sweep the boards even if the score’s discography were less underwhelming. With pitch tuned to A = 430 Hz, the performance of Zaide on this disc has a bright patina from start to finish that heightens appreciation of the precious alloys with which the score was forged. Furthermore, Page paces a performance that has the continuity and linearity of a fully-functional opera rather than seeming like a disjointed traversal of a fragmentary work. Page’s work discards the once-fashionable concept of arbitrarily quickening tempi in Mozart’s music in a wrongheaded, faster-is-more-authentic approach. From his first operatic outings as a boy setting pompous texts about Arcadian idylls and moral dilemmas of antiquity, Mozart bothered to fully absorb the meanings of text when composing, and, following this example, Page establishes tempi in Zaide that highlight the skill with which Mozart united words with music. Launching the performance with the Overture from Mozart’s incidental music for Thamos, König in Ägypten (K. 345/336a), played with tremendous élan by The Orchestra of Classical Opera, the conductor collaborates with musicians and singers to create a propulsive account of Zaide that succeeds more than any other recorded performance of the score at both offering the listener a wholly satisfying musical experience and presenting the score on a scale that would have been familiar to Mozart. This is not Zaide as a prologue to Die Entführung aus dem Serail but as its own work. She is small of stature, occasionally unsteady on her feet, and a bit shy, but Zaide is, this recording reveals, compellingly unique and worthy of her creator.

With voices of the quality of those of baritone Jonathan McGovern as the Vorsinger and Peter Aisher, Robin Bailey, Simon Chalford Gilkes, Ed Hughes, Stuart Laing, Nick Morton, and Dominic Walsh as the Sultan’s Sklaven, the performance of the opening chorus, ‘Brüder, laßt uns lustig sein,’ could not possibly fail to delight, and the singing provided by this illustrious ensemble of gentlemen is as far from failure as human efforts can be. Well-trained voices are not always effective en masse, but each voice in this group occupies an appropriate space in the sonic mosaic, establishing an evocative, aptly exotic environment to host the drama to come.

Obviously a kinsman of his namesake in Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Osmin in Zaide has considerably less material with which to make his mark, but bass-baritone Darren Jeffery breathes life into the blustering fellow, not as vibrantly characterized by Mozart or the librettist, Johann Andreas Schachtner, as his Entführung counterpart, with a characterful, strongly-sung performance of the aria ‘Wer hungrig bei der Tafel sitzt.’ Jeffery’s technical assurance enables him to gallop through the music without forcing or distorting his handsome, sinewy voice.

Interpreting Sultan Soliman, more sympathetic in song than Entführung’s Bassa Selim often is in speech, tenor Stuart Jackson is an expert counterbalance for the ardently romantic Gomatz. Jackson’s flexible, slightly metallic voice shimmers and slithers insinuatingly through the Sultan’s music, the singer’s command of subtle inflections apparent from the first line of the Melologo, ‘Zaide entflohen,’ and growing ever more impactful in the aria that follows. Jackson voices ‘Der stolze Löw läßt sich zwar zähmen’ with easy mastery of Mozart’s idiom, at once redolent of Händel’s writing for Grimoaldo in Rodelinda and foreshadowing music for Mozart’s own Pedrillo and Monostatos. The aria ‘Ich bin so bös’ als gut’ is sung with a keen fusion of musicality and imagination. Like Jeffery, Jackson evinces dramatic credibility in his music, lifting Soliman off the pages of Mozart’s score with spirited, sophisticated singing.

Singing Allazim with a baritone voice that sounds destined by nature for feats of greatness in Mozart’s music for Conte d’Almaviva in Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, Guglielmo in Così fan tutte, and Papageno in Die Zauberflöte, Jacques Imbrailo shares Jeffery’s and Jackson’s talent for engendering a three-dimensional dramatic profile for his rôle. Though decidedly more serious, the wily Allazim is not unlike Dandini in Rossini’s La Cenerentola, his head always in the game and his eyes always on the prize—in this case, a future in freedom for Zaide, Gomatz, and himself. Imbrailo intones Allazim’s aria ‘Nur mutig, mein Herze, versuche dein Glück’ with engrossing focus, and he voices his lines in the terzetto with Zaide and Gomatz, ‘O selige Wonne’ meaningfully, his sincerity complementing the lovers’ starry-eyed emoting and providing the ensemble with an anchor in reality. The baritone’s attractive vocalism envelops the aria ‘Ihr Mächtigen seht ungerührt’ in a cloak of velvet without smothering the vocal line. Historically, many baritones have been inclined to over-sing in Mozart rôles, digging into their lowest notes and belting out the top notes as though they were singing music by Verdi. Their basic timbres are quite different, but Imbrailo’s affinity for Mozart’s style is so complete that he could be mistaken in certain phrases on this recording for Hermann Prey. Is there any higher standard of achievement in Mozart singing?

Any doubt that Allan Clayton is a Mozart tenor in the class of Anton Dermota, Fritz Wunderlich, Stuart Burrows, and George Shirley is irrefutably put to rest by his singing of Gomatz’s music in this performance of Zaide. The innate nobility of phrasing and beauty of tone that distinguished the singing of those great Mozarteans of generations past course through every bar that Clayton sings in Zaide. If he contributed nothing more than vocalism, he would be fully convincing as the young slave who captures Zaide’s heart, but he expresses emotions through song with an unaffected immediacy that recalls Richard Tauber. Even without knowing a single word of German, it would be possible to grasp the sentimental gist of his every utterance. This is true from the first word of the Melologo ‘Unerforschliche Fügung,’ which he declaims with diction that, if not likely to be mistaken for a native speaker’s, is significantly superior to the learned-by-rote schoolboy German with which too many singers compromise their performances of Mozart rôles. Clayton traces the melodic line of the aria ‘Rase, Schicksal, wüte immer’ with the viscous flow of Turkish honey. In the duetto with Zaide, ‘Meine Seele hüpft vor Freuden,’ this Gomatz partners his Zaide with tones that truly seem extracted from the depths of his soul. The tenor’s soft-textured upper register, allied with unimpeachable support through the passaggio, gives his singing of the aria ‘Herr und Freund, wie dank’ ich dir’ an aura of newly-found peace of mind that heightens the mood conjured by the text. Clayton lavishes on Gomatz’s part in the terzetto with Zaide and Allazim, ‘O selige Wonne,’ the sort of effortlessly beautiful vocalism that listeners long to hear in Tamino’s ‘Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön.’ A vital tenet of Clayton’s artistic credo is undoubtedly some variation of the notion that anything worth doing is worth doing well: as Gomatz in Zaide, no one on disc has done better.

Zaide’s is the sole female voice in the Singspiel as it survives, Mozart having given her no Blonde in whom to confide her secrets and ambitions, and upon her falls the task of taming the opera’s testosterone-driven madness with level-headed femininity. A singer better suited to this tall order than soprano Sophie Bevan would be a veritable operatic unicorn. Like the character herself, Bevan’s singing is sometimes marginally insecure, especially as she ascends above the stave, but her musical and histrionic instincts are never less than excellent. Zaide’s—and Zaide’s—best-known aria is the gracefully-scored ‘Ruhe sanft, mein holdes Leben,’ and every ribbon of eloquence that Mozart threaded into the music is unfurled by Bevan with the utmost delicacy. She is unafraid of bold gestures, however, and a throbbing vein of resilience is never far beneath the surface of her portrayal of Zaide. She guilelessly mingles her voice with Clayton’s in the duetto ‘Meine Seele hüpft vor Freuden,’ their tones joining like lovers’ hands. In the terzetto with Gomatz and Allazim, too, she proves a first-rate exponent of Mozartean ensemble singing, intertwining her lines with those of her male colleagues with the uncomplicated joy of a girl braiding her hair. Bevan’s voice gleams in her singing of the aria ‘Trostlos schluchzet Philomele,’ and her technique rises to every challenge of the demanding aria ‘Tiger! Wetze nur die Klauen.’ With singing of the quality provided by Bevan’s colleagues in this performance, this is a Zaide that would be at least reservedly enjoyable without a strong Zaide, but what would be the point? The point of this Zaide is that Bevan’s Zaide is the catalyst for the Singspiel’s drama and the heart that beats within this captivating musical torso.

The performance of the opera’s de facto final quartetto, ‘Freundin, stille deine Tränen,’ is representative of this disc as a whole. Mozart deploys the voices of Zaide, Gomatz, Soliman, and Allazim with intelligence, and Page, the orchestra, and the singers respond in kind. With Bevan’s Zaide as the center of emotional gravity and Page’s conducting providing the necessary centripetal force, they indelibly broaden the theatrical efficacy and musical significance of Mozart’s discarded score.

In the decades following Mozart’s untimely death in 1791, only weeks before his thirty-seventh birthday, his lore grew to such an extent that well-meaning Nineteenth-Century guardians of the Mozart Mythology sought to protect him from the ill-effects on his reputation of such deficiencies as the perceived immorality of Così fan tutte, the alleged banality of Die Zauberflöte, and the certain embarrassments of his large assortment of musical juvenilia. Not every work composed by Mozart in the years before he reached artistic maturity is a masterpiece, but performances and recordings in recent years, particularly some of those issued in commemoration of the Mozart anniversaries in 1956 and 1991, confirmed that no apologies need to be made for the musical products of the composer’s youth. If an apology is necessitated by this recording of Zaide, it is Mozart’s to make: he really should apologize to this cast for failing to give them a complete Zaide with which to further gladden Twenty-First-Century listeners. This recording of Zaide is a splendid achievement with which every Mozartean should celebrate the 260th anniversary of the master’s birth.