Peter Sellars’ current exercise in politically correct activism (can his work still be called “theater”?) takes advantage of Mozart’s 250th birthday to bang us over the head with his message du jour: Slavery is bad.
When he was 23, Mozart began experimenting with a Singspiel — a sort of German musical comedy with numbers separated by stretches of spoken dialogue — about some unlucky Europeans captured and held as slaves by a Turkish sultan. Mistaken identities are revealed, a family reunited and it all ends happily.
At least that’s what we think he was doing. After writing 15 numbers, he abandoned the project (without writing an overture or finale) in favor of a decent-paying commission to write an Italian opera. Whatever spoken text may have existed is lost, and the fragment known as “Zaide” has been in search of a theatrically valid framework since its discovery in the early 19th century (Mozart apparently never heard a note of the work in his brief lifetime). Even 20th-century novelist and poet Italo Calvino tried his hand at creating a performing edition, with less than satisfying results.
Why bother? “Zaide” contains one of Mozart’s all-time great hit tunes, the sublime soprano aria “Ruhe zanft, mein holdes Leben,” and a good deal of the rest of the score — about an hour of music — ranks as primo Amadeus.
Sellars gets things off to a less than rip-roarin’ start by subjecting an unwitting audience to a panel discussion about contemporary slavery and human trafficking.
When music comes, it is not from “Zaide,” but an obscure Mozart oratorio, given in lieu of the unwritten overture. Indeed, four more numbers from “Thamos, King of Egypt” are interpolated as orchestral interludes, turning an interminable evening into an excruciating one.
While Sellars’ self-concocted plot synopsis takes up six program pages, the actual stage directions could fit on a Post-It. There’s this sweatshop (hyper-realistically designed by George Tsypin, although all those untouched, atmospheric sewing machines looked awfully shiny); the slaves escape; lovers Zaide and Gometz are captured; Allazim returns to beg for his buddies’ freedom; the Sultan wants to shoot everybody. Blackout.
Among other things, Sellars’ synopsis tells us Gometz is a Christian and the other slaves are Muslims; as with any other fine points of clarification, however, you won’t see this illuminated onstage. It’s basically a park-and-bark show, with the occasional and now supremely annoying Sellars trademark (more than two decades old) of having characters perform a kind of 1960s girl-group synchronized hand choreography in time to Mo’ Mozart.
Among the uniformly excellent singers, gifted, rich-voiced American tenor Russell Thomas delivers a breakout perf.
If you absolutely must see this co-production when it hits New York or London, you may want to sit in the back: From the sixth row, trying to view the singers on the upper levels of Tsypin’s vertical set (which rises straight up from the orchestra pit) was like being stuck in the front row at the movies. Many audience members simply took advantage of the glaring fluorescent lights to browse through their programs, perhaps searching for justification for parting with $70.
Better yet, you may want to just make a contribution to the human rights charity of your choice, stay home and throw on a Mozart CD.