One of my earliest opera-related memories is of me putting a recording of The Magic Flute on the stereo and regularly skipping through the spoken parts. In my defence, I was a kid and didn’t know a single word of German; I just enjoyed the music and attempted to make sense of the little information I had. However sacrilegious that may sound, it also carried a great creative potential: not knowing the plot, I could make up a fairly vast amount of scenarios. It is on this very process that Italian writer Italo Calvino based his reconstruction of the unfinished Singspiel Zaide, refusing to force a univocal interpretation on Mozart’s few manuscript fragments. While staying true to the work’s turquerie-oriented inspiration, Calvino chose to highlight the ambiguities of its incomplete narration by creating several possible storylines to substitute for Johann Andreas Schachtner’s lost libretto: the writer imagined three different and just-as-valid narrative frames for Zaide and Gomatz’s illicit love affair and made them coexist, escaping any temptation to pick a definitive one as three separate plots unfold. There are no certainties, just hypotheses; and the pre-existing music numbers assume different meanings depending on how the Narrator (a spoken role) introduces them, presenting them differently each time. The ending itself is open: in the mosaic of fiction, any piece may originate a new picture.

Juan Francisco Gatell (Gomatz) and Chen Reiss (Zaide) © Yasuko Kageyama
Juan Francisco Gatell (Gomatz) and Chen Reiss (Zaide)
© Yasuko Kageyama

Calvino’s intention to craft a metatheatrical work that is perpetually in progress was made evident by Graham Vick’s new staging for Rome's Teatro dell'Opera. Curtains were left open before the beginning as to unveil the mechanisms of fiction: the stage itself was made into a construction site where characters appeared dressed à la turca (costumes by Italo Grassi) and acted according to the Narrator’s orders. While this may seem a little old-hat, Vick captured the fable-like texture of Calvino’s writing and succeeded in not getting tangled-up in the complex timeline. The libretto’s recursive structure is certainly a challenge to directors, but Vick managed to come up with solutions that could easily fit in any of the possible scenarios. Grassi’s scenery provided some beautiful visual effects: Zaide sang her second act aria “Trostlos schluchzet Philomele” in the midst of a backlit bath scene, during which maids wrapped a veil around her body while a golden waterfall flowed in the background. Such beauty may have collided with what we guess is the actual setting of the aria (a prison), yet it effectively matched the music’s melancholic mood.

Paul Nilon (Soliman), Chen Reiss (Zaide) and Juan Francisco Gatell (Gomatz) © Yasuko Kageyama
Paul Nilon (Soliman), Chen Reiss (Zaide) and Juan Francisco Gatell (Gomatz)
© Yasuko Kageyama

As is evident, it would be partial and misleading to judge (and review) any musical performance of Calvino’s Zaide according to usual operatic standards: its large spoken sections in prose go far beyond the limits and conventions of a Singspiel, to the point that it is reasonable to wonder whether this is an opera at all. Arias, duets and trios rather become the objects of the writer’s mainly literary research, which sidelines both the necessity of a definitive plot and the relevance of Mozart’s music. Nevertheless the performances were praiseworthy. Albeit somewhat unsteady in her first aria, Chen Reiss imbued the role of Zaide with both tenderness and strength. Her voice grew firmer throughout the evening, building up to the aforementioned second act aria which Reiss sang with precise and composed gentleness. Markus Werba portrayed a distinguished Allazim. His solid and resolute baritone gave good value to the aria “Ihr Mächtigen seht ungerührt”, whose message of clemency and enlightened despotism was presumably meant to encapsulate the moral of Mozart and Schachtner’s original story. Juan Francisco Gatell gave an enjoyable performance as Gomatz, his pleasant tenor not standing out as much as his almost hectic physical skills (Vick made him sing his aria “Herr und Freund” while climbing up and down a garbage tube). Paul Nilon was a rather unconvincing Soliman, not nearly as intimidating or fierce as the role would suggest. The cast was rounded out by Remo Girone’s Narrator, whose compelling, vivid performance wasn’t undermined by a few memory lapses: the actor’s ability to stay true to Calvino’s unique writing voice and distinct narrative pace was truly remarkable.

Paul Nilon (Soliman) © Yasuko Kageyama
Paul Nilon (Soliman)
© Yasuko Kageyama

After a rather laconic first act, the second half of the work gave Daniele Gatti the opportunity to display his ideas about the score. Gatti certainly isn’t known as a Mozartian conductor, but he did lead the orchestra with thorough attention to timbral effects and made sure the affetti suggested by each aria were carefully conveyed. The overall result is a sound that’s variegated and distinctive at once, which partially makes up for the score’s lack of dramatic direction.

****1