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Zaide at the Symphony: Fraction of a Fragment

February 26, 2013

Nadine Sierra, soprano soloist in <em>Zaide</em> San Francisco Symphony, often getting into the business of its neighbor across Grove Street, the San Francisco Opera, is now offering a Mozart novelty. It's not easy to find something virtually unknown by one of the most performed composers of all time, but Michael Tilson Thomas has found one and he is now boosting Zaide on both coasts — in a very different fashion. Performances in Davies Symphony Hall are Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evening this week.

Zaide is an unfinished opera by the 22-year-old Mozart, who by 1779 had written numerous music dramas, and was about to create one of his greatest operas, Idomeneo.

A forerunner of Abduction from the Seraglio, Zaide (originally titled Das Serail) is a rescue play about enslaved Europeans in a Turkish harem. Only arias and ensembles from the first two acts were composed; a planned third act wasn't even begun.

So last week, MTT staged a fascinating production of Act 1 of the opera in Miami, with the New World Symphony, serving as narrator, with an assistant conducting.

Now comes the San Francisco version: a two-minute orchestral introduction (Mozart didn't write an overture), two arias, and ... intermission! The entire first half of these concerts will run a little over 15 minutes, before the 20-minute break, which sounds very much like a ballet repertory evening.

Bruckner to give weight (and time) to the concert At least, the two Mozart arias, performed by Nadine Sierra in her SFS debut, should be exciting. One is the only familiar excerpt from Zaide, the dazzling soprano aria "Ruhe sanft, mein holdes Leben" (Rest in peace, my sweet life); the less familiar "Tiger! Wetze nur die Klauen" (Tiger, sharpen the claws).

The concert's second half should make up in time and gravitas whatever is missing before the intermission. It's Anton Bruckner's magnificent Symphony No. 7, running about 65 minutes, according to SFS program notes — unless MTT follows the somewhat slower (67 minutes) tempos of his Bruckner-expert predecessor, Herbert Bloomstedt, or that of Otto Klemperer or Riccardo Chailly, who didn't bring it in under 70 minutes.

While audiences are getting used to Gustav Mahler's demanding symphonies — especially in San Francisco, after MTT's repeated performances of all of them — Bruckner may still be subject to members of the audience abandoning the hall during the performance. Once a chronic occurrence, walkouts are getting more sporadic. Stay and relish the uniquely rich harmonic language, dissonances and unprepared modulations that still seem radically new.

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].