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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756 – 1791)
Ascanio in Alba K111 (1771)
Festa teatrale in two acts.
Libretto by Abbate Giuseppe Parini
Ascanio - Maaike Beekman (Mezzo-Soprano)
Venere - Claudia Patacca (Soprano)
Silvia - Nicola Wemyss (Soprano)
Aceste - Tom Allen (Tenor)
Fauno - Claron McFadden (Soprano)
Vocaal Ensemble Coqu
Music ad Rhenum
Jed Wentz (Conductor)
Recorded May 2002, Maria Minor, Utrecht
Zaide K. 344 / 336b (1779)
Deutsches Singspiel in zwei Aufzügen
Zaide - Sandrine Piau (Soprano)
Gomatz - Max Ciolek (Tenor)
Allazim - Klaus Mertens (Bass Baritone)
Sultan Soliman - Paul Agnew (Tenor)
Osmin - Klaus Mertens (Bass Baritone)
Narrator - Gregor Frenkel Frank
Dutch Radio Kamerorkest
Ton Koopman (Conductor)
Recorded: 25 February 2002, Muziekcentrum Vredenburg Utrecht, The Netherlands
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 99734/1-5 [5 CDs: 50.32, 51.04, 52.39, 40.11, 50.13]
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This is another volume in Brilliant Classics’ Mozart series. As with other opera boxes in the series they have made some slightly strange choices regarding the pairing of the operas and the performers. This box combines Mozart's early Festa Teatrale 'Ascanio in Alba', performed on original instruments, with the incomplete Singspiel 'Zaide' (a precursor of 'Die Entführung aus dem Serail') performed on modern instruments but with period specialist Ton Koopman in charge.

'Ascanio in Alba' was written for wedding celebrations of the Habsburg Archduke Ferdinand to Maria Ricciarda Berenice d'Este in Milan, when Mozart was 15. The rather silly plot could hardly have given Mozart cause for rejoicing, it is full of nymphs and shepherds with a pair of lovers going through some vastly unnecessary complications before the happy ending. Venere (Claudia Patacca) encourages her son Ascanio (Maaike Beekman) to become ruler of the Kingdom of Alba. There, he falls in love with Silvia (Nicola Wemyss) who is supported by the priest, Aceste (Tom Allen) and Siliva is in love with an unknown man (this turns out to be Ascanio). But Ascanio is twice forbidden by Venus to reveal himself. Finally Ascanio and Silvia are united, but the happy ending is a long time in coming, the work lasts 150 minutes. Of this, around 50 minutes is taken up with secco recitative. After the overture and opening chorus, Venus has 3 minutes of recitative before getting around to her first aria. For a little known work, with a printed libretto in Italian only, this is rather too much recitative and the work would have benefited from some judicious cuts. There are a number of attractive arias, but these are let down by the sheer quantity of the recitative. Lacking in any real drama, the recitative can be rather uninteresting. All the singers do their best, performing the recitative stylishly and their singing is not without interest, though the harpsichord continuo does go a little overboard at times.

But the quality of the arias would make it worth the wait were it not for the performances here. All the singers perform quite creditably, but I felt that few of them were completely comfortable with the elaborate style of the arias. Claudia Patacca has an attractive voice but her top does not respond well to pressure and some of her notes are rather squally. Maaike Beekman (variously described in the booklet as a Soprano or Mezzo-Soprano) has a warm voice with a fairly significant vibrato which makes it rather unsuitable for this style of music and the role seemed to lie a little low for her. Tom Allen has a pleasant, well focused tenor voice, but he seemed very unhappy in the passage work. Claron McFadden has a fine sense of style, but the high tessitura of her part taxed her considerably. The best and most stylish singing on the disc comes from Nicola Wemyss, it was always a relief and pleasure to listen to her arias.

'Ascanio' is punctuated with a series of short choruses. Musically these are rather repetitious, Mozart definitely on auto-pilot, but the Vocaal Ensemble Coqu perform them stylishly, making much of very little. Music ad Rhenum sounds quite a small group. They perform crisply and incisively for Jed Wentz but his speeds are a little on the fast side and occasionally the performance sounded a little rushed.

'Ascanio' has not had that many incarnations on record. It was included in the Philips complete Mozart Edition in a rather ordinary performance by the Salzburg Mozarteum conducted by Leopold Hager, with Agnes Baltsa, Edith Mathis and Arleen Auger. There is also a French performance, with Michael Chance in the title role, on Naxos. I wish I could be more enthusiastic about this new recording, but though performed adequately, none of the singers (apart from Nicola Wemyss) performs the florid arias with the sense of bravura that is required. After all, this was a wedding entertainment so the listeners would expect to be dazzled by the virtuoso singers.

The Singspiel 'Zaide' is incomplete, there is only the music for 15 numbers and no surviving dialogue. It was discovered by Constanze Mozart after the composers death and was not performed until 1866. It was written in 1780, 2 years before 'Die Entführung aus dem Serail'.

'Zaide' is performed here with a linking narration in German spoken by a character called Zaram though the author of the narration is uncredited in the booklet. As with the other Singspiels in this Brilliant Mozart series, the spoken passages are not printed in the booklet so following it is restricted to those with good German. As there are also two long melodramas then a substantial amount of the recording is given over to the spoken word. Linking narration might sound a good idea, but on a recording it gives the members of the cast little time to develop the characters. Here it sounds less than involving. reducing the piece to a disconnected series of arias. If I had this recording on my library shelves, I could see myself programming my CD player to skip the spoken passages. It does not help that the narration seems to be spoken in a different acoustic to the music.

The heroine, Zaide, gets the bulk of the material with a duet with Gomatz and three arias, including the most well known number 'Ruhe sanft'. Sandrine Piau (Soprano) sings her arias beautifully. She performs with great poise and the role holds no terrors for her but I wanted a greater sense of line rather than a disconnected sequence of (beautiful) notes. I felt that her voice was perhaps a little too light for the role, but then the first person I heard singing Zaide was Rita Hunter. Sandrine Piau manages the dramatics of Zaide's final aria, 'Tiger! wetze nur die Klauen', finely. But how you respond to her stylish singing will, in the end, depend on how you like her distinctive voice production and I know that I could not live with it.

Max Ciolek (Tenor) as Gomatz, makes a fine hero, he has a clear, bright, focused voice. But he does not really sound comfortable with the passage work and his voice does not always respond well to pressure in the upper register. Gomatz disappears from the second half of the singspiel, apart from an appearance in the final ensemble. Instead, the sultan Soliman, played by Paul Agnew (Tenor), has two arias. He is stylishly imperious in his arias and I rather wished that a way could have been found for him to sing Gomatz as well.

Klaus Mertens (Bass), who sings both Allazim, the Sultan's gardener and Osmin, has a pleasant enough voice but in Allazim's first aria sounded distinctly uncomfortable with the fioriture. He seemed more comfortable in Osmin's aria. Apart from the passage work he has a mellifluous tone, but he does not have the lower register necessary for Allazim's second aria.

The Dutch Radio Kamerorkest play well for Ton Koopman, giving a stylish account of the score and Koopman paces the music well. But I felt that they do not quite generate the sort of élan that Mackerras brought to his Mozart recordings with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

Musically and dramatically 'Zaide' feels like a dummy run for 'Die Entführung aus dem Serail'. Though ‘Die Entführung aus dem Serail' has the advantage that not only is it complete, but its long gestation period meant that it is far more developed than a standard singspiel. This performance of 'Zaide' sets quite a good musical standard, but the attempt to turn it into a complete drama has the effect of stretching the material beyond its natural limits.

This is an interesting pairing. Neither piece is perfect and neither performance is ideal. But there is a lot of interest in music by Mozart, even on an off day. And both these performances are more than serviceable. At super budget prices, this boxed set is highly recommendable for those wanting to explore the byways of Mozart.

Robert Hugill


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