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Anne Midgette revisits Wolf Trap's staging of Mozart's 'Zaide'

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 14, 2010; C01

To 18th- and 19th-century artists, the Turkish harem exuded an aura of mingled exoticism, sensuality and evil. Today, though, it's the stuff of decidedly un-PC cliche. So it was rather brilliant of the director James Marvel, bringing Mozart's unfinished singspiel "Zaide" to the Wolf Trap Opera Company's stage on Friday night, to find a contemporary equivalent in science fiction.

Marvel's "Zaide" is about alien abduction. The action is set aboard a spaceship, with a panel of video screens and various instruments of torture (the staging of the overture -- the first movement of Symphony No. 25 -- is downright violent). Soliman, the sultan, is in cahoots with sinister aliens who slink across the stage, shrouded like mummies, with black faceplates and, in one case, clawlike appendages used as an extra set of legs.

A violation of Mozart? Not at all. "Zaide" was found as an unfinished manuscript in the composer's papers after his death; it's a torso of a work, with a few lovely musical numbers and a few static ones linked with spoken text. Anyone staging it has to do significant creative work to make it theatrically viable. With the sci-fi setting, Marvel found a world as familiar and exotic to his audience as Mozart's harem was to the 18th-century Viennese, or would have been if they'd ever seen it. ("Zaide" was not performed until 1866, 75 years after Mozart's death.)

To find an ending for this unfinished work (Mozart never wrote the projected third act), the company turned to the public: At intermission, audience members dropped ballots into metal boxes to choose among three different outcomes. Friday night saw an impressive voter turnout, divided nearly equally among the drastic (everybody dies), the happy (everybody is set free), and -- Friday's winner -- the mixed (everybody is freed, but the slave-lovers, Gomatz and Zaide, learn they are siblings, considerably diminishing their chances at a happy-ever-after). Musically, the difference is negligible; a few lines of spoken dialogue and short reprises of music that's already been heard.

Gary Thor Wedow conducted a stirring performance. The singing was, as always at the Wolf Trap Opera, both strong and a work in progress. Wolf Trap is dedicated to showcasing young voices: Every one of Friday's singers had something special to offer that made it clear why they'd been hired, but it was disappointing to hear some basic technical problems from alumni of the best training programs in the country.

As the sadistic Soliman, Nathaniel Peake unsheathed a thrilling tenor with some powerful notes in the upper middle of his voice, but it turned out that his lower register was almost inaudible. Paul Appleby, as Gomatz, had a supple light lyric tenor but sounded tired in his uppermost notes. (He'll return to D.C. for a program with the Vocal Arts Society next spring.)

Two of the singers appeared at Wolf Trap last season: Daniel Billings as the slave Allazim and Hana Park as the beautiful slave girl Zaide, the favorite of the sultan. Billings, strikingly clad in long dreads and ostrich feathers, like a slave version of Liza Minnelli, sang with a solid and efficient baritone. Park, who is busy in Virginia this summer -- she'll appear at Lorin Maazel's Castleton Festival in July -- has a hard-edged, accurate soprano. It's a beautiful sound; her challenge as she evolves is to create more gentleness, more of a limpid quality in the way those notes fit together.

It may be unfair to say that my favorite voice of the evening was Michael Sumuel's: unfair, because as the slave-driver Osmin, Sumuel had only one aria, and therefore got to sound fresh and easy while his colleagues wore themselves out. Still, his bass-baritone, rich and moist and addictive as layer cake, made me want to hear more of him (I'll have a chance in July in Rossini's "Turk in Italy").

I would happily have voted for a fourth ending, one in which Sumuel sang one of Sarastro's arias from "The Magic Flute." I'm sure that Marvel, who was so commendably concerned with taking "Zaide" seriously enough to make it into a real piece of theater, could have figured out a way to make that work.

Zaide will be performed again Tuesday, June 15, at 8 p.m. and Saturday, June 19th, at 7:30 p.m at the Barns at Wolf Trap.

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