Thu, Dec 13, 2007 - Page 14 News List


By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

Mozart, Czernowin
Director: Claus Guth
DGM 073 4252

Two Mozart operas lead in the classical music field this month. First is a new production of Die Zauberflote (The Magic Flute) from Zurich Opera, conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Second is the unfinished Zaide, given a new angle by Israeli composer Chaya Czernowin. The first is an undoubted success, while the second is likely to appeal to the brave-hearted.

Zauberflote is a director-driven production (or Eurotrash version to the opponents of such things). Consequently the serpent of the opening scene becomes twenty or so lifelike snakes, which the singers handle with scarcely concealed fascination. Papageno, instead of being a bird-catcher, is first seen imprisoned in an aviary. The set is a series of doors and sparsely-furnished, functional offices built on a revolving stage.

The production succeeds, however, because the music's spirit of mystery and magic is retained. The sense of characters who don't understand what's happening to them and a world ruled by mysterious forces - Masonic brotherhoods operating in modern offices - prevails.

The whole project is further guaranteed success by the stupendous playing of the Zurich forces under Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Never has this music sounded as lucid, with its beauty shining out like the colors of an old painting recently stripped of varnish. The soloists, mostly young, sing with exceptional grace and heart-felt simplicity, making this one of the most ravishing versions of this much-recorded opera currently available.

Matti Salminen makes a celebrity appearance as Sarastro, toning down his Wagnerian bass voice to fit the gentler style of late Mozart (as he explains in generous backstage bonus footage). Elena Mosuc makes a vituperative Queen of the Night, giving malicious meaning to Mozart's coloratura passages and at one moment disappearing, appropriately enough for an ice-queen, into a refrigerator.

The youngster soloists are all excellent. Ruben Drole (Papageno) proves the crowd-pleaser, as effective as an understated actor in his spoken text as he is a singer. All the dialogue, often cut down, appears to be included in this version.

This unexpectedly moving production represents a profound reading of Mozart's Zoroastrian masterpiece, suggesting that the human spirit can overcome even global capitalism. If you want to treat yourself to a real Christmas present, try this pair of intensely enjoyable DVDs.

Mozart never completed Zaide, leaving 75 minutes of music with no beginning and no end. What Chaya Czernowin has done is write a parallel mini-opera, called Adama, whose numbers are played alternately with Mozart's fragments. The styles are totally distinct, Czernowin's music being minimalist and atonal. Two separate orchestras, one situated behind the action, the other in front, tackle the different scores. But the stories are very much related. Mozart's tells of a harem slave girl, Zaide, who falls in love with a Christian boy, while Czernowin's offers the tragic love of a contemporary Israeli girl and a Palestinian man.

The action becomes violent in the second half, with torture and stonings to death. This is when Czernowin comes into her own - you can't imagine such events accompanied by Mozart's music. There was plenty of brutality in 18th-century Europe, but Mozart would not have thought it was music's function to represent it. As Czernowin explains in a brief bonus section, her essential theme is the difficulty of remaining an individual under the often-violent pressure of the group.

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