Oriental Delights Anticipating Mozart’s Operas

“Zanaide” performed in Bad Lauchstädt. © Gert Mothes

Oriental exotics and intrigue, power struggles, impossible love, betrayal and reconciliation – those ingredients have tempted librettists and opera composers alike. How they dealt with it, had very much to do with the conventions of the time, the taste of the audience, and the availability of good singers. When Johann Christian Bach, the youngest son of Johann Sebastian Bach, made his debut in London,  he was appalled by the lack of good singers, and though the King’s Theatre asked him in 1762 to write two operas, he initially refused. However, after the audition of several singers, he agreed, and in 1763, he presented an opera that had long been forgotten, and that I have discovered myself only very recently: Zanaida.

The foundation of the opera is the libretto “Siface”, written by the much celebrated Pietro Antonio Domenico Bonaventura Trapassi, better known as Pietro Metastasio. Metastasio’s work had been adapted by Giovanni Bottarelli, the poet in residence of the King’s Theatre. He moved the original setting from North Africa to Persia, with the rivalries between the Ottoman Empire and the Persian ruler as the political background. And here is the plot: Tamasse, the ruler of Persia, is finalizing a peace agreement with the Turks. The deal calls for the Turkish princess Zanaide to marry Tamasse, but Roselane, Tamasse’s mother prefers Osira, the daughter of Mustafa, the Turkish ambassador in Isfahan. As a matter of fact, Tamasse is in love with Osira, and the question now is whether love will triumph over the Raison d’Etat or not.

Zanaida is entitled to a cold reception in Persia, while Mustafa refuses to allow Osira to marry Tamasse, he would rather kill her. Tamasse imprisons Zanaida and fabricates a letter, suggesting that Zanaida had planned to kill him. Mustafa believes this ruse and decides that a traitor such as Zanaida must die. Zanaida claims she is innocent, and Mustafa attempts to rescue her when she leaves prison to be executed by trying to eliminate Tamasse. Zanaida in turn saves the treacherous Persian ruler by preventing Mustafe from executing his plan. Zanaida’s courage and sincerity convince Tamasse that she would be the better wife and asks for her forgiveness.

Metastasio changes the parameters

When Metastasio began to write libretti in the first half of the 18th century, the Italian opera was about to overcome a crisis: composer’s had merely been content producers in modern parlance and had to live with the caprices of the singers. Opera had become a hollow art, much decorum, little substance, all was fine as long as the audience had the feeling of being well entertained. With Metastasio the parameters changed. The libretti were streamlined, the number of singers reduced, gone were the comic characters. Comical elements and dramatic evolutions still had their place, but the librettists injected a dose of philosophy – product of the Enlightenment – into the plots. The music changed too. The melodies became simpler, the arias became less extravagant. It was the beginning of what would later became the Vienna style represented by Mozart.

Speaking about Mozart, Bach’s opera sounds very much like Mozart. On June 15, 2011, some 250 years after the last performance of “Zanaida”, the French ensemble “Opera fuoco” performed the opera in Bad Lauchstädt, not far from Leipzig. Historical instruments were used, the Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles provided historical costumes. The performance was a great success with much coverage of the specialized media and luckily it has been recorded in 2013 under the Chandos label. When Mozart set out to write his first operas, his landmarks were the Italian opera in its revitalized form. Legend has it that the young Mozart actually met Johann Christian Bach in Italy and improvised on a theme from “Zanaida” but I found no independent confirmation of this.

From a stylistic point, Bach’s musical language is very close to young Mozart’s. If I hadn’t known this opera had been composed by Bach junior, I would have guessed at an unknown work of the Vienna master. The music is just as beautiful as Mozart’s melodies in his “Don Giovanni”, the exotic “oriental orchestral colours remind me of his “Abduction from the Seraglio”, the singers master the challenging parts gracefully, and the high-energy performance of the orchestra during the three acts emphasizes the work’s exuberance, according to the music critic Kate Bolton.

Do I recommend this opera? Oh yes, very much so. It’s quite charming.

© Charles Thibo

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