The bare bones of Mozart’s unfinished opera Zaide comprise one glorious aria for the enslaved heroine – the aspirational “Ruhe sanft” – and an assortment of other numbers which might be considered mediocre by Mozart’s standards but which would more than cut the mustard by anybody else’s.
But there’s no surviving text, virtually no last act, and no ending – happy or otherwise.
Enter Ian Page, whose Classical Opera Company was born to boldly go where others might shy of going and whose musical archaeology has purpose and enterprise. Joined by wordsmiths Michael Symmons Roberts (sung text), Ben Power and director Melly Still (spoken text) in the creation of a new libretto what emerges (in embryo, anyway) is Mozart’s answer to Beethoven’s Fidelio – sexual and political oppression in all its unforgiving ugliness. Even as Ian Page’s wiry period band are bristling through the Overture (borrowed like much else from other Mozart – in this case Thamos, König in Ägypten), director Melly Still is enacting a brutally thwarted prison escape. Anna Fleischle’s design offers variations on cages and improvised barbed wire. Lighting (Natasha Chivers) brings little relief from shadow or scrutiny.
There isn’t a whole lot to work with, though, beyond the preponderance (only sporadically effective) of accompanied spoken “melodrama” - and paradoxically the most affecting musical content (other than the rapturous “Ruhe sanft”) arrives in the sketchy final act where Page has borrowed a beautiful aria (invariably cut) from Idomeneo for his hero Gomatz (a creditable Andrew Goodwin) and an equally affecting response from his heroine Zaide in the shape of one of those useful concert arias. There’s even a Cosi moment casting a fleeting shadow over the happy ending: a typically male response (as in modified revulsion) to the sexual favours the women have been compelled to perform for their brutal masters. That has Melly Still written all over it.
Still is skilled in producing those moments of improvised magic that work so well for minimalist touring opera – a blanket that catches our hero’s weary body like the onset of sleep; or the torches that effect a panoply of stars for the young lovers. Still always pushes for truth from her young cast in the tricky dialogue, with variable results, but in Pumeza Matshikiza (Zaide) she has an emotive performer to work with. There are still rough edges and some breathing issues – especially in the aria – but the connection between sound (distinctively creamy) and feeling has bags of potential. And that’s what the Classical Opera Company is all about nurturing.