J. C. BACH Zanaida • David Stern, cond; Sara Hershkowitz (Zanaida); Marina De Liso (Tamasse); Pierrick Boisseau (Mustafa); Chantal Santon (Roselane); Daphné Touchais (Cisseo); Vannina Santoni (Osira); Julie Fioretti (Read more class="ARIAL12i">Silvera); Majdouline Zerari (Aglatida); Jeffrey Thompson (Gianguir); Opera Fuoco O (period instruments) • ZIG-ZAG TERRITORIES 312 (2 CDs: 128:59 Text and Translation)
In keeping with my New Year’s resolution to review more operas, as long as they come from the Classical or early-Romantic periods, are not widely known, and are preferably of the comic variety, I here submit for your consideration Johann Christian Bach’s Zanaida, an opera in three acts that fulfills the first two of my three criteria. The story has a more or less happy ending, but it’s not a comedy; it’s a complicated plot involving multiple love triangles and the political machinations of powerful rulers and their tactics of intimidation, coercion, and threat of death. But first, some background on the score.
Admittedly, J. C. Bach is not a name that comes to mind when I think of composers who wrote operas, but it turns out that he composed a baker’s dozen of them, of which Zanaida, dating from 1763, is his fifth. It further turns out that when Bach arrived in London in 1762, his reputation as a successful composer and conductor of opera preceded him.
Zanaida was one of two operas Bach composed and presented during his first 1762–63 season at London’s King’s Theatre, the other being Orione. While Zanaida was well received and ran for six performances, Orione enjoyed the greater popular success, and it may be for that reason that nothing but the overture—published as the Symphony in B?-Major, op. 9/3—eight arias issued in keyboard arrangements, and the libretto of Zanaida survived; or so it was believed until 2010, when the autograph manuscript was discovered in the library of a private U.S. collector, Elias Kulukundis, and made available to the Leipzig Bach Festival. One of Roselane’s arias remains lost and was replaced in this performance by the music to an aria from Bach’s uncompleted opera, La clemenza di Scipione, that was made to fit the words.
The libretto is an adaptation of Metastasio’s Siface by Giovan Gualberto Botarelli, the King’s Theatre’s resident poet at the time, and it’s a doozy of deception, disloyalty, and duplicity. It calls for six sopranos, a contralto (Tamasse), and two tenors (Mustafa and Gianguir). In the 1763 performance, the roles of Tamasse and Cisseo, the latter here sung by a soprano, were sung by castrati. I count only five sopranos on this recording, so I’m guessing that the role of Aglatida, which is taken by a mezzo, would have been the sixth soprano.
Now, let’s see if I can sort this all out. Soliman, Emperor of Turkey—his character does not appear in the opera—and Tamasse, ruler of Persia, are finalizing details of a peace agreement between their countries after a long war. Zanaida is Soliman’s daughter, which makes her a Turkish princess. As part of the peace accord, Tamasse agrees to take Zanaida as his consort. This is sort of a reversal of operatic conventions in which the victor demands the girl as part of his spoils. In this case, Zanaida is being fobbed off on Tamasse who doesn’t want her because he’s secretly in love with Osira. Zanaida, of course, doesn’t get a say either way.
Mustafa is, or was, Soliman’s ambassador to Persia; he was detained by Tamasse at the outbreak of the war, and Osira is Mustafa’s daughter. This is where the opera begins, with Roselane, Tamasse’s ambitious and conniving mother, and Osira, who is in love with Tamasse, singing a duet in which the older woman essentially tells the pining girl to suck it up, and not so subtly hints that if she plays her cards right, not only will Tamasse be hers, but together they will rule the Persian empire. Remember that as Mustafa’s daughter, Osira is a Turk, and she is being manipulated by Roselane for political ends.
Meanwhile, Tamasse is hatching a plot of his own. He enlists the help of Cisseo, a Persian prince, who also happens to be in love with Osira, to seduce Zanaida so that he, Tamasse, can accuse her of infidelity and thereby terminate his agreement to marry her. Thus far, Zanaida has been betrothed to a man who doesn’t want her and who’s willing to besmirch her reputation to get rid of her. But it’s about to get worse. When the Turkish Mustafa gets wind of the fact that his daughter, Osira, is in love with the Persian Tamasse, he accuses her of being a traitor and threatens to kill her, saying to Tamasse, “I will slay my unworthy daughter in your arms.” Nice.
The arrival of act II finds Roselane plotting with Osira to have Osira’s perceived rival, Zanaida, killed. Meanwhile, the plan to have Cisseo seduce Zanaida apparently didn’t work out, so now Tammase falls back on Plan B: He’ll imprison Zanaida and keep her locked up to avoid having to honor the treaty. Has the title heroine of any opera ever been so maligned that everyone seems to have some reason for wanting her out of the picture, even though she hasn’t done a thing to harm anyone?
If you thought things weren’t bad enough, Osira now rebuffs Cisseo, telling him that she covets the Persian throne over his love, while Tammase realizes that simply imprisoning Zanaida (for having done nothing) isn’t good enough. As long as she’s still alive, he’ll be honor-bound by the treaty. And so it’s on to Plan C, as Tammase now decides he has to have her killed. If you can’t dispose of her one way, have her dispatched by another. Maybe this is a comedy after all.
But the planned killing spree isn’t over. By act III, for reasons one has lost interest in, Mustafa is now out to kill Tamasse. Remember that in act I Mustafa was prepared to kill his own daughter for falling in love with Tamasse. Now his homicidal rage is transferred to Tamasse. You may be relieved to know that it’s all threats and bluster; no one in the opera is actually killed, though perhaps Botarelli should have been for coming up with this libretto.
Osira’s ambitions are dashed when the designing Roselane tells her that even as queen of Persia she’d be a nothing, a mere puppet at the end of Roselane’s strings. And in the final scene, Zanaida, who’s about to be executed on Tamasse’s orders, manages to intervene to save Tamasse from being killed by Mustafa, whereupon Tamasse is overcome by remorse for his treatment of Zanaida, asks for her forgiveness, and proclaims her his consort and queen of Persia. You have to ask yourself, would any woman as abused as Zanaida accept Tamasse’s act of contrition? Maybe if she were a battered wife, but there may yet be discovered a lost fourth act to this opera in which Zanaida has everyone killed and reigns over Persia as its sole sovereign. Surely, she deserves some retribution.
If you can put aside all the follies of the libretto and just listen to Bach’s music and to the players playing it and the singers singing it, you will have over two hours’ worth of pure pleasure. The music has to be some of Bach’s best; it’s not quite Mozart, but it’s close. Mustafa’s act I aria, “Almen la Parca irata,” where he threatens to kill his traitorous daughter, is a magnificent simultaneous portrayal of anger and anguish; and the quartet (Tamasse, Mustafa, Roselane, and Zanaida) that concludes act I is masterful. So too are Zanaida’s act II cavatina, “Mentre volgo intorno il piede,” and her act III aria, “Chia pietà non sente al core.”
None of the singers are familiar to me, but there’s not one in the lot that’s wanting, either in vocal quality or in dramatic and emotional projection. Personally, women taking men’s parts is not to my taste, but I understand the desire to simulate the castrati roles of Tamasse and Cisseo by having them sung by mezzo Marina De Liso and soprano Daphné Touchais, respectively. This is probably a better solution than using male altos for the parts, a substitution for castrati that many period-practice performances make, and not, in my opinion, to their benefit. Here we have no men pretending to be eunuchs pretending to be men, just women pretending to be men.
Founded by David Stern in 2003, Opera Fuoco is a period-instrument ensemble of healthy size, with a complement of strings numbering 20 (7:5:3:3:2), three flutes, oboes, clarinets, and horns in pairs, plus harpsichord continuo supported by an additional cello, and where Bach calls for it, a tambourine. Playing throughout is as polished and poised as one could possibly want.
Do I have any complaints? Unfortunately, yes, though I’ve carped so often about recordings of opera, oratorio, choral works, and song that don’t include texts, I feel churlish for finding fault with a booklet that not only includes the complete libretto in three languages, but a detailed plot synopsis, an informative essay about the work, a roster of singers and players, and several pages of color photos. So, what’s not to like?
Well, first, the print is very small, which already makes it hard to read, but to make matters worse, it’s printed in a very light gray ink on white stock, which forced me to remove my glasses and have to squint up close to read it.
Second, the libretto is not indexed to the track listing and vice-versa, so that where the track listing simply says “15. Aria Zanaida,” there’s no way to locate where track 15 is in the libretto or what the first words of the aria are.
And third, the entire libretto is printed sequentially, first in Italian, then in French, and then in English, instead of side by side. So I had to keep flipping back and forth frantically between the Italian and the English to try to figure out where I was and what was being sung. And in no time at all, my frantic flipping resulted in the not-securely bound pages coming loose and falling out. Actually, that may be a good thing, because then you can put the English and Italian pages next to each other.
In no way, however, does my critique of the booklet design prevent me from extending this release an urgent recommendation. This is a first ever complete recording of Bach’s Zanaida, and, the murderous intentions of its characters notwithstanding, it’s a magnificent piece of operatic theater, magnificently set by Johann Christian Bach, and magnificently performed by David Stern and his vocal and instrumental forces.
Zanaidaby Johann Christian Bach Performer:
Majdouline Zerari (Mezzo Soprano),
Chantal Santon-Jeffery (Soprano),
Pierrick Boisseau (Baritone),
Sara Hershkowitz (Soprano),
Marina De Liso (Mezzo Soprano),
Daphné Touchais (Soprano),
Vannina Santoni (Soprano),
Julie Fioretti (Soprano),
Jeffrey Thompson (Tenor)
Average Customer Review: ( 1 Customer Review )
Two+ entertaining operatic hoursApril 7, 2013By L. Ackerman (Washington, DC)See All My Reviews"As a good representative of his time, Johann Christian (the English) Bach, composed in almost every genre and profusely. At first sight, it seems he delivered approximately 40 operas, most currently lost and, to my knowledge, only 'Amadis de Gaula'(1779, French!) recorded. Zanaida (1763) is one of those turkish stories that composers from Gluck to Rossini entertained with their inspiration. Whoever decided to rescue such obscure utterance deserves praise; Opera Fuoco, Maestro Stern, and eveyone involved in making this recording a success. With so much composed then, this is a glimpse at the era between JS Bach and Mozart, huge musical change when you realize that not many years before this was composed, Papa Bach was still delivering chorales and cantatas in pure Baroque fashion. So this is no mozartian masterpiece, but it makes for a fun time listening to quite variety of voices, especially the five sopranos. Nice differences amongst their timbre and sound make for a truly varied ride. There are also nice orchestral touches, especially from the horns, and the sense of occasion is evident: small scale but very live and vivid. This is soprano's Sara Herskowitz first recording, and for someone who had the joy of hearing and meeting her while following her career for the last four years, I am truly at awe of her accomplishment and hope her carreer follows the ascendance that she deserves, as an artist and the beautiful human being that she is. I hope that this adventure proves so successful that the label Zig-Zag explores further, similar possibilities. This one is a winner."Report Abuse