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Opera review: Musica Angelica stages Mozart's 'Zaide'

February 21, 2011 |  2:49 pm

There was once a time when opera and theater audiences couldn’t get enough of the fantasy of a fetching European slave who catches the fancy of her captor, a Turkish sultan. She went by many names.

For Voltaire, she was Zaïre. In opera, Bellini gave us “Zaira.” We meet Zaida in Rossini’s “The Turk in Italy” -- which opened at Los Angeles Opera on Saturday -- here disguised as a Gypsy in Naples after fleeing the sultan. Zaide also happens to be the title character of an early Mozart singspiel, or spoken and sung drama. And by a remarkable coincidence, Musica Angelica presented three semi-staged performances of “Zaide” over the weekend in Pasadena and Santa Monica,

The local period instrument ensemble attempted a clumsy updating of Zaide to pouty American teen, but then Mozart's opera is a torso that invites contributions from musical and theatrical handymen, and Musica Angelica at least found a believable young soprano for the title role. Mozart, in his early 20s and reaching his early mastery of operatic form, abandoned the work when the commission for “Idomeneo,” his first major opera seria, came along. Then, instead of completing “Zaide,” he pressed on with a similar story for his first great comic opera, “The Abduction From the Seraglio.” Some scholars speculate that Mozart wasn’t satisfied with a pat happy ending (just as Rossini wasn’t for his Turkish opera, and he farmed out his Finale).

Only until recently has “Zaide” been considered more than a mere Mozartean curiosity. It lacked a title (sometimes it was called “Das Serail”), overture, dialogue and an ending. But fetching music has caught a modern fancy and several performing versions have been made. The Italian novelist Italo Calvino wrote a text for a new ending. Luciano Berio and Israeli composer Chaya Czernowin have added their musical contributions to Mozart’s score. Peter Sellars staged and filmed the torso as a terrifying window into the contemporary sweatshop slave trade.

Musica Angelica's music director Martin Haselböck meant to balance two worlds. His overture is Mozart’s Symphony No. 32, written at the same time as “Zaide.” His Finale is an adaptation of a later Mozart vocal quartet. Intentionally stilted dialogue in English was written by British director Brian Michaels, who also supplied a “happy” new German text to fit the music of the Finale.

In Michaels' contemporary staging, Zaide riffles through fashion magazines while lying on a couch. Her boyfriend Gomatz, another European captive in the seraglio, bones up on law books. A third European is Allazim, who is a friend of Sultan Soliman, and he is a scholarly type, in cardigan and cords. Finally, Soliman, appears in business suit, his wavy long hair in a ponytail the one exotic touch. He sits at a desk, drinks Scotch and pounds his fists in anger. Zaide has rejected him for Gomatz, and he vows to kill the Europeans when they attempt an escape.

Old and new did not meet well on the Broad Stage in Santa Monica at the Sunday afternoon performance. The singers sounded comfortable with Mozart, less so with stylized period acting that made them appear amateurish. But there was stylish playing from the orchestra and a chance for Valerie Vinzant to shine as Zaide.

Her highfalutin dialogue hardly suited her pampered teen persona, but Vinzant nonetheless gave a vivid portrayal (rolling eyes seductively, impatiently, furiously) of a vapid young woman suddenly thrust into life-and-death decisions.

A graduate of L.A. Opera’s Domingo-Thornton Young Artist Program who has sung small parts with the company, she produces a solid and silvery soprano. If Sunday she made each aria into something to please an audience rather giving herself more fully to the musical drama, she may have been marshaling her strength for an evening performance, or simply reacting to weak direction and courteous conducting. Still, the indication was clear that she is capable of much.

Andrew Bidlack, another young American singer, was an ardent, sincere Gomatz, also musically solid but undone by cornball dialogue. Baritone Christian Hilz was a genial, bland Allazim, while tenor Christoph Genz tore up the scenery as Soliman.

 Sometimes a torso is best left like the Venus di Milo.

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Christian Hilz, from left, Valerie Vinzant and Andrew Bidlack with Musica Angelica in "Zaide." Credit: Katie Falkenberg/for The Times