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Is it possible to mug an audience? In the context of the Peter Sellars show that visited London’s Barbican on Thursday en route from Vienna to New York, the question is not so absurd. I could understand anyone who felt assaulted by it. The audience was certainly duped. We were promised a semi-staging of Mozart’s Zaide. What we got was a political harangue, blunt and full-frontal.
The evening began with a speech by the wacky American director in which we were told Mozart had been a founder of the anti-slavery movement, precursor of the African-American movement and the women’s movement – though this is one of Mozart’s achievements that has so far eluded his biographers. Slavery is back, said Sellars, “as part of the new global economy” and Zaide represents Mozart’s call for us to take action. Then came a speech by the director of Anti-Slavery International, followed by the chief executive of the Poppy Project, which campaigns against the sexual trafficking of women.
The story of 17-year-old Acka, lured to the UK and treated like a sexual slave, was harrowing – so much so that I suspect many people’s reactions had been deadened by the time the music began. Mozart – especially unremarkable Mozart – couldn’t compete. Here was Sellars railing against the exploitation of women, while shamelessly exploiting the music of an innocent 23-year old.
Pity the poor £35-a-head ticket-holders. I wager none would deny that slavery and sexual trafficking are execrable. But neither are they likely to take up the cause. White, middle-aged, middle-class concert-goers may pay for Sellars’s meal ticket but they don’t pay to be lectured by white, middle-aged, middle-class campaigners. The self-appointed Patron Saint of the World’s Oppressed would be better taking his roadshow to parliament or a student campus.
The problem with every Sellars show is that it’s not about art. It’s about Sellars’ armchair liberalism. If “Baa-Baa Black Sheep” were regarded as great art, you can be sure he would hijack it to promote a message of political injustice. Great art never points the finger. It leaves us to draw our own conclusions.
Zaide is not an opera by Mozart. It is the title bestowed by a Viennese publisher on a collection of 15 numbers written to texts by Johann Andreas Schachtner in Salzburg in 1779-80. There is no surviving dialogue or scenario to connect up Mozart’s arias and ensembles. He probably abandoned the project because he was dissatisfied with the result.
The title role was sung by Hyunah Yu, another of the Borletti-Buitoni Trust’s wonderful discoveries. By insisting on an otherwise all-black cast, Sellars sought to put it beyond criticism – a disservice to uniformly fine singers. I would have preferred if Concerto Köln, conducted by the excellent Louis Langrée, had taken the limelight in the previous evening’s Mozart concert music (flabbily played by that stylistic dinosaur, the London Symphony Orchestra) instead of seeing it play second fiddle to Sellars.
‘Zaide’ is at New York’s Rose Theater on August 9, 11, 12. Tel +1 212 721 6500