Mozart’s unfinished opera Zaide has been interpreted anew by the founder, conductor and artistic director of the Classical Opera Company, Ian Page for this Sadler’s Wells presentation and subsequent tour.

Page had the idea to take the fifteen pieces (including twelve arias) that Mozart wrote for Zaide in 1779, and the opera we now see is the product of his (and many others’) efforts over the last nine years.

Page took the decision to ‘fill in the gaps’ by using Mozart’s own music, utilising pieces written within a few years of Zaide to aid stylistic continuity. So Act Three, for which Mozart never wrote a thing, includes excerpts from Thamos, König in Ägypten, Idomeneo and Die Entführung aus dem Serail.

Page did not believe that any living composer could produce Mozartian music up to the standard of the original, while to write anything in another style risked destroying the overall harmony of the piece. However, while his reasoning seems sound, and the end result solid, if he had been just a little more adventurous he might have got away with it.

As things stand, there are some problems. If ‘additional’ music is ruled out, there is the question of how Mozart’s arias are to be linked, which is done here with straight dialogue. The often lengthy spoken passages make the production seem stilted as we feel repeatedly plucked out of an operatic experience only to be thrust back into one. Sometimes the spoken lines are interspersed with short orchestral interludes, but the music rarely underscores the utterances themselves, so these hardly qualify as recitatives.

Similarly, while it is wise to perform this Zaide in English, because sticking to German would have precluded any use of Mozart’s Italian output, the translation sometimes feels pedestrian with lines such as ‘You will never believe me and now you leave me’ and ‘To those who give me pleasure I’m generous beyond measure’.

As we will never know how Mozart and his librettist, Johannes Schachtner, intended to finish the opera, Page has opted for a sensible conclusion, but one that witnesses an unsatisfying switch from accusations of treachery to proclamations of forgiveness in a second. Nevertheless, if this is because it uses ‘O, Belmonte, o my life’ from Die Entführung aus dem Serail (which becomes ‘O my Gomatz, o my darling’), it also means that the opera does close with the most beautiful of quartets.

Melly Still’s staging, which opts for modern costume, is generally successful. Anna Fleischle’s set consists of a large metal frame that at first has barbed wire spread across it to create a prison yard and then sees the spikes rolled back (by the chorus as part of the action) to create Soliman’s palace. Unlike in Katie Mitchell’s current ENO production of Idomeneo, background action is kept under control and, where it does occur, genuinely supports, rather than distracts from, the singing. As the tyrannical Soliman (Mark Le Brocq) sings ‘I am as bad as good’ we witness guards dunking prisoners’ heads in buckets of water. The only disappointments are that so much of Act One is set at night that virtually the whole first half is dimly lit, while for energy nothing goes on to beat the opening chorus where the prisoners grapple roughly with the guards as they sing.

The evening is truly made, however, by the singing. If, as Zaide, Pumeza Matshikiza is a little piercing and overbearing in her first, famous, aria, ‘Lost in sleep’, she then focuses her voice to produce a beautifully thick, resonant sound for the remainder of the evening. Nevertheless, whilst hers is the show-stealing performance, she is surrounded by a strong triumvirate in Amy Freston as a light voiced Perseda, William Berger as a richly phrased Allazim and Andrew Goodwin, who as Gomatz delivers a stirring performance of ‘Gods of Love, our hearts are smitten’.

But while the performances are strong and the staging successful, I can’t help feeling that this interpretation of Zaide falls into the trap of playing just a little too safe.

– Sam Smith