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Mozart: Zaide (Das Serail) / Harnoncourt, Et Al

Release Date: 08/08/2006 
Label:  Dhm Deutsche Harmonia Mundi Catalog #: 84996   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Performer:  Anton ScharingerMichael SchadeDiana DamrauTobias Moretti,   ... 
Conductor:  Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Vienna Concentus Musicus
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 47 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

There is little known about the composition of Zaide; Mozart rarely mentions it in correspondence of the period. We do know that he began work on it in 1779-80 but stopped composing after 15 numbers had been completed. Perhaps it was because there was no prospect of a production; perhaps he was left at a creative loss by the fact that the hero and heroine--Zaide and Gomatz--are romantically attracted to each other and at the opera's close turn out to be brother and sister. More likely, a commission from Munich for Idomeneo arrived, and it was a far grander proposition. When Joseph II asked Mozart for a new Singspiel after Idomeneo, the composer looked at Zaide again but decided instead on a work with a similar plot and Turkish atmosphere, Read more Die Entführung aus dem Serail.

Zaide is a far simpler work than Entführung. The orchestration is less complex, the arias less ornate; indeed, had it been completed it would have been a type of "popular" entertainment that Mozart later validated with Die Zauberflöte--essentially a spoken play with songs--but not as rich. But several of the 15 numbers that were composed are top-drawer Mozart--utterly charming, gentle, fervent--and you could argue that the aria "Ruhe sanft" is his most beautiful for soprano voice. Furthermore, it is the only work of Mozart's to include melodrama--text spoken over music that more-or-less underlines the words' feelings--an odd practice whose most famous examples are found in the dungeon scene of Beethoven's Fidelio and the Wolf's Glen Scene in Der Freischutz.

There have been several recordings of the opera: One (which I've not heard) dates from a 1956 broadcast and stars Fritz Wunderlich and Maria Stader; a 1982 recording under Leopold Hager (on Orfeo) is heavy-handed and lacks charm; one led by Bernhard Klee in the complete Mozart Edition on Philips is prosaic and lacks any real sense of drama; another features Paul Goodwin leading a terrific performance with fleet tempos, youthful energy, and warmth (on Harmonia Mundi), with the lovely Lynne Dawson as Zaide. This new DHM set, recorded at concert performances in Vienna in March, 2006, has a great deal to recommend it and is now the recording of choice--but there is a serious caveat.

The caveat, which I'll explain below, has little to do with the leadership of Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Aside from a weirdly slow "Ruhe sanft" (he might have just been bathing in the beauty of Diana Damrau's voice and is to be forgiven for such an indulgence), tempos are un-eccentric, and his Concentus Musicus Wien plays with alternating grace and potency, able to pull out all the stops, say, in Soliman's entrance and Zaide's rage aria in the second act. Mozart supplied no overture, and Harnoncourt wisely uses the similarly scored K. 184.

In addition, the cast is terrific. As suggested above, Damrau is lovely and endlessly interesting as Zaide, the Sultan Soliman's favorite, and her sweetness and sadness are as effective as her fury. Michael Schade as Gomatz, enslaved by Soliman, gets to express his outrage well, and he's very fine indeed. Soliman is another tenor role, and Rudolf Schasching attacks it with vehemence, only occasionally overdoing the teeth-gnashing. Allazim, a Muslim convert from Christianity who lives at the Palace and decides to escape with the others, is sung nicely by baritone Florian Boesch, and he makes the most of this conflicted character. Anton Scharinger sings the bass role of Osmin with the right combination of menace and humor.

Now for the caveat. The unfinished work "ends" with a quartet in which the Muslim Soliman is about to kill Zaide and Gomatz, while Allazim, disappointed in Soliman, pleads for their lives. No happy ending is in sight. It is impossible not to draw comparisons with today's Christians vs Muslims political climate, but in case we missed it, for these performances a text has been written and performed by the Austrian actor Tobias Moretti. It starts and ends the action and is inserted occasionally between numbers, adding about 25 minutes to the opera. It begins with some genuinely nasty exchanges heard at the last Republican Party Convention and continues with a discussion about freedom, the Enlightenment, class distinctions. In between numbers it explains the action, often in very modern slang, which could pass for "hip" if it weren't so obtrusively self-conscious, and it closes the opera, after the vicious, pessimistic quartet (a great piece of music, by the way), by wondering what the conclusion will be: "A military intervention, perhaps, a bush fire for liberty and culture"? Very clever, and We Get It, We Get It; it's a point well-taken, even if it has no place vis-a-vis Mozart's unfinished opera. It then goes on to philosophize.

But here's something even more bothersome: Moretti's opening remarks include a discussion of freedom of worship, spirit, and thought, "the latter something Thomas Mann recommended to the Germans once more after 1945, as they had mislaid it..." As long as Moretti is pointing a well-placed finger, would he like to say a few words about his fellow Austrians' involvement in mislaying freedom while the Germans were doing the same thing? Or do politics of that sort have no place in the Musikverein? My advice: Listen to the wonderfully performed music and use your remote control to avoid the lecture.

--Robert Levine, ClassicsToday.com
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Works on This Recording

Zaide, K 344 (336b) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Performer:  Anton Scharinger (Bass), Michael Schade (Tenor), Diana Damrau (Soprano),
Tobias Moretti (Spoken Vocals), Rudolf Schasching (Tenor), Florian Boesch (Baritone)
Conductor:  Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Vienna Concentus Musicus
Period: Classical 
Written: 1779-1780; Salzburg, Austria 
Venue:  Live  Grosser Saal, Musikverein, Vienna 
Length: 107 Minutes 3 Secs. 
Language: German 
Notes: This performance is narrated by Tobias Moretti, who reads his own text.
Grosser Saal, Musikverein, Vienna (03/09/2006 - 03/13/2006) 

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