Escape from the Sultan’s palace: Mozart’s “Zaide”

A work about slavery – what does this tell us about Mozart?

Zaide

Jugendstiltheater, Vienna 2006 Photo: Austrian Theatre Museum, Vienna / Barbara Palffy
1780
Salzburg
Zaide

Zaide

Jugendstiltheater, Vienna 2006 Photo: Austrian Theatre Museum, Vienna / Barbara Palffy

In 1780 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was in the employ of the prince-archbishop of Salzburg, Count Colloredo. Colloredo was not a generous employer and was reluctant to spend a lot on Mozart. Wolfgang used the term on several occasions…

At that time he was fascinated by “Zaire”, a play by Voltaire, and started to compose an opera. The result was an unfinished musical comedy in two acts. The libretto, which is lost, was probably written by an old friend of the Mozart family, Johann Schachtner. Mozart’s “Zaide” displays obvious parallels to “The Abduction from the Seraglio”. It is considered its precursor and shows strong tendencies towards social criticism. By giving it an oriental disguise, Mozart saved himself from repression by the state.

Turkish flair as a disguise for social criticism

Sultan Soliman claims possession of his slave Zaide, who is in love with the slave Gomatz, who feels the same for her. With the support of Allazim, another of Soliman's slaves, they make their escape. Burning with rage, the sultan recaptures them. They deplore the sultan’s inability to feel any empathy for them and plead for mercy - in vain.

“Zaide” is one of several of Mozart’s works that remain unfinished. Perhaps the artist considered it too serious for the audience, which was more in favour of light entertainment. At least Mozart resumed the material for his much lighter “The Abduction from the Seraglio”. But perhaps he stopped working on “Zaide” in favour of a new opera object: he received the commission for “Idomeneo” in the autumn of 1780.

“Zaide” was never performed during the lifetime of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Later, various additions and finales were composed for the opera, which premiered in Frankfurt am Main in 1866.