Classical Opera Performs Lucio Silla, Mozart’s Underrated Opera!

10/03/2012

 Mozart: Lucio Silla, K135: (Concert Performance) Soloists of Classical Opera, Orchestra of Classical Opera, Members of the Lucio Silla Chorus / Ian Page. (conductor), Cadogan Hall, London, 8.3.2012 (MMB)

Lucio Silla, dictator Anthony Gregory (tenor)
Giunia, daughter of Mario and wife of Cecilio Natalya Romaniw (soprano)
Cecilio, an exiled Roman senator Rowan Hellier (mezzo-soprano)
Lucio Cinna, Roman patrician and friend of Cecilio Eleanor Dennis (soprano)
Celia, sister of Lucio Silla Katherine Watson (soprano)

During his three Italian trips, from December 1769 to March 1773, the teenage Mozart received three big operatic commissions. The first was Mitridate, re di Ponto (1770) whose great success originated the next two: Ascanio in Alba (1771) and Lucio Silla (1772). Mozart was still only sixteen when he composed Lucio Silla. He was forced to do it at speed, as he could not begin writing the arias until the singers were present – and they arrived late. The opera was premiered on 26th December 1772 at the Teatro Regio Ducal, in Milan, and the lead male singer – castrato Venanzio Rauzzini – who would sing Cecilio, arrived at the end of November while the prima donna – Anna de Amicis – who played Giunia, was not present until early December. Add to this, the fact that the tenor, who ended up performing the title role, was a church singer, Bassano Morgnoni, with no stage experience, and one must wonder how young Mozart managed to cope and still produce a work of distinction.

The plot of the opera is based on the story of Roman despot Lucius Cornelius Silla (138-78 BC) who unexpectedly retired from his dictatorship. He was a curiously interesting character and what should have been a fabulous role for a tenor. As it turned out, due to Morgnoni’s inexperience and late appointment, Mozart reduced the part considerably and the tenor was given only two pleasantly pretty arias, which vocally are not very demanding.

Mozart’s later operas, each one a true masterpiece, naturally eclipsed the operatic achievements of his teenage years. However, one can better understand his path to creating such glorious scores, like Le nozze di Figaro or Così fan tutte (to name only two) by listening to his earlier operas. Lucio Silla though quite underrated is an unbelievably accomplished work for a boy of sixteen, definitely predicting the marvels that were to come! I was therefore rather pleased that Classical Opera decided to perform it, even if only as a concert.

Classical Opera is a young company in more senses than one: Founded in 1997 by its conductor and artistic director Ian Page, it seeks to give opportunities and coach younger singers at the beginning of their careers. As the name indicates, the company specialises in music of the Classical Period (Mozart and his contemporaries). The cast performing Lucio Silla last night at Cadogan Hall was in line with the company’s aim of discovering and furthering young talented artists: They were all very young and sang in a refreshingly enthusiastic manner, with an almost childlike sense of wonder.

Anthony Gregory, who sang the title role of Lucio Silla, did not have so many opportunities to shine, as his female colleagues; through no fault of his own, it must be said but because at the time, Mozart was forced to reduce the role due to the limitations of the singer assigned. However, Gregory made the most of what he was given and he delivered his two arias convincingly, with an attractive clear line and assured high notes. Dramatically, he appeared a little uneasy (perhaps, slightly nervous), as if he was not quite sure what to do with his arms or how to express his anger. This was nothing to worry about though, as performing experience will almost certainly cure these mild problems.

One of the dominant features of Lucio Silla, and indeed of Mozart’s earlier operas, is the predominance of very high voices. So, apart from Gregory’s tenor, we have three sopranos and one mezzo. Katherine Watson, a former member of Le Jardin des Voix (the baroque academy of Les Arts Florissants) sang Silla’s sweet sister, Celia, rather effectively. Ms Watson’s delicate frame and youthful looks together with her considerable acting skills made the character very convincing. She was in fine voice, displayed an assured coloratura and an elegant legato line even though one or two of her highest notes were slightly distorted and sounded a little strident. Eleanor Dennis who sang Lucio Cinna was to me the weakest of the four women, particularly in her aria Vieni, ov’amor t’invita, right at the start of the opera. She seemed very hesitant during the most florid parts of the piece; her trills were too carefully executed, as if walking on tiptoe and, at first, her top notes were drowning under the sound of the orchestra. To be fair, she improved considerably as the opera advanced, which led me to think that her somehow patchy beginning was probably due to nerves – an impression strengthened by the fact that, at first, she just stood at the front of the orchestra, rigid and wooden, making no attempt to enter character; however, this behaviour changed and improved later.

The final two women, Natalya Romaniw and Rowan Hellier, performed the two most important and most difficult roles of the opera: Giunia and Cecilio respectively. Mozart composed the role of Giunia for Anna de Amicis, one of the greatest singers of the time, and Cecilio’s part for the famous castrato Venanzio Rauzzini. De Amicis must have possessed an enviable coloratura, judging by the extraordinarily virtuosic arias that Mozart wrote for her and Rauzzini, like generally all the great castrati, had a very wide range. Natalya Romaniw delivered one of the two truly excellent performances of the evening. She has a rich, round tone, clear diction and an assured coloratura. There is room for improvement in her phrasing, which is not yet very refined. She focused a tad too much on the athletic qualities of her instrument, as her vocal prowess is considerable, with powerful high notes that rung across the hall in “glass breaking” mode! She has a charming stage presence and her Giunia was convincingly portrayed.

Rowan Hellier, as Cecilio, delivered the other really excellent performance of the evening and was the singer that impressed me the most. She possesses a wide mezzo range, with a dark edge in the lower register and clear, easy high notes in the top of her voice, which she is capable of sustaining above the orchestra with remarkable ease. Her tone is warm and varied and she also displayed an elegant, delicate legato line, particularly during her final aria, the beautiful and tender Pupille amate. The only thing I would say is that her acting skills need improving (she was not a convincing Cecilio) and her diction requires some attention, as the vowels particularly can sometimes sound slightly muffled.

Classical Opera have their own period instrument orchestra that performed exceptionally well throughout, effectively led by their very capable founder, Ian Page, who showed great understanding and respect for Mozart’s youthful, sparkling music. The young members of the Chorus were one of the highlights of the evening with an enthusiastic, energetic delivery of their pieces.

In all, Classical Opera offered the audience a very pleasant musical evening, introducing us to new, young singers with great potential, perhaps in a sense mirroring an opera created by a sixteen year old who went on for greater things!

Margarida Mota-Bull

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