A thoughtful staging and fine performance of Mozart’s Lucio Silla in Salzburg

AustriaAustria Mozart, Lucio Silla: Soloists, Chorus of the Salzburg Landestheater, Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra / Carlo Benedetto Cimento (conductor). Salzburg Landestheater, 4.6.2024. (MB)

Salzburg Landestheater’s Lucio Silla © Christian Krautzberger

Director – Amélie Niermeyer
Set designs – Stefanie Seitz
Costumes – Kathrin Brandstätter
Lighting – Tobias Löffler
Video – Janosch Abel
Dramaturgy – Frank Max Müller and Vinda Miguna
Chorus director – Tobias Meichsner

Lucio Silla – Luke Sinclair
Cecilio – Katie Coventry
Giunia – Nina Solodovnikova
Lucio Cinna – Nicolò Balducci
Celia – Anita Rosati
Aufidio – Joseph Doody

The Salzburg Landestheater’s new production of Lucio Silla, generally accorded the finest of Mozart’s three opere serie for Milan, was first seen in January of this year. Though I was actually in Salzburg for the second performance, I was unable to see it then, so I was delighted to have opportunity to catch up with a thoughtful staging and fine performances, worthy of anyone’s attention — and which it would be highly desirable, if at all possible, to have preserved on film. The sixteen-year-old composer’s relish for the forces, chorus included, at his disposal in Milan was vividly brought to life. If he had not yet learned the dramatic virtues, at least from time to time, of concision such as one experiences in later dramas, it is difficult to imagine anyone having minded. Such was the expertise with which this young cast made Mozart’s recitative and da capo arias, coloratura in particular, vividly meaningful as well as vocally thrilling, that more modern prejudices against the genre were thoroughly dispelled. The quality of staging and performances also offered a welcome opportunity to (re-)assess Giovanni De Gamerra’s admittedly very early libretto.

De Gamerra has come in for a bad press, then and now: to my mind, at least a little unjustly. Lorenzo Da Ponte, who perhaps, having been compelled to leave Vienna, had his own reasons for dissatisfaction with those who had remained, reported in a footnote to his memoirs:

Leopold [II, Holy Roman Emperor] took [Giovanni] Bertati to his opera. A year later came [Giovanni Battista] Casti: and that wretched dramatic cobbler was dismissed. But Casti was not fond of hard work. He asked for an assistant and obtained one in person of Signor Gamerra, a poet famous for his Corneide, a poem in seven or eight fat tomes wherein he mentioned all the horns that had appeared in Heaven or on earth from the birth of Vulcan down to those of his own grandfather. This ungrateful cornifex had not been a year in Vienna before he began butting with his benefactor, accusing him of Jacobinism; and poor Casti … was enjoined to depart from Vienna at once.

This is both odd and intriguing, given that Leopold himself spoke harshly of the poet, advising his brother Ferdinand, governor of the Duchy of Milan, in a letter John A. Rice discovered in the Vienna archives, that De Gamerra was ‘fanatic to excess, hot-headed, imprudent concerning … liberty, very dangerous,’ a startling extreme judgement coming from one who was far from reactionary, and which certainly attests to strong political sentiments on De Gamerra’s part. We might also note, though, that Leopold was none too complimentary about Ferdinand, dismissing him in a secret memorandum on members of his family (!) as ‘a very weak man, of little intellect and paltry talent, but who has a very high opinion of himself’. Make of that what you will. (I shall resist the temptation to go into greater detail about the House of Austria and Mozart’s operas here, but more will follow both in articles and, when finished, a book on the complete operatic œuvre.)

Perhaps more significant has been the view that the libretto, in particular its ending, is not very good. Mozart found himself having to make revisions in light of criticism (of the libretto) by Metastasio. In his New Grove article, Julian Rushton calls the denouement ‘unconvincing’ and the libretto as a whole ‘turgid’, whilst allowing Lucio Silla nonetheless to be ‘musically the finest work Mozart wrote in Italy, … [ranking] with opera seria by the greatest masters of the time’. I certainly should not dissent from the latter, either in principle or in light of this performance, but I find the judgement of the libretto unduly harsh, both in general and with respect to the ending, demanded by the conventions of the genre but also foreshadowed more than many allow both in libretto and score. A virtue of Amélie Niermeyer’s production is its taking the ‘problem’ of the ending, on which more shortly, on board. Greater faith in the work, one might well argue, might make such a strategy unnecessary; but in light of the decisions made, reasonable and justified for a contemporary production, its subversion (or, if you prefer, extension) makes good sense.

Neirmeyer takes her leave from the historical Lucius Sulla’s dictatorship. That did not necessarily hold quite the same implications as now, but such qualification is largely beside the point if it makes for good drama, which, on the whole, it does. In this world of modern dictatorship, rebels, resisting a new, brutal régime, in which opponents, pictured in placards held up by those resisting, have been ‘disappeared’. Lucio Silla exists and is amplified by propaganda, photographed snaps retouched and enhanced by his friend, the tribune Aufidio to portray the essence of strong, masculine leadership. Cecilio, Lucio Cinna and others are in hiding, clothing suggestive of a guerilla movement, and crucially are being watched (at least part of the time) through electronic surveillance from the dictator’s palace.

Silla vacillates and is persuadable, picking up on the mediating role of his sister Celia as well as his love for Giunia, she of the old regime, so that his sudden decision for clemency (a recurring theme, we might note, through Mozart’s entire œuvre, as well as much other eighteenth-century opera) seems less unmotivated than has been alleged. But there is a twist. Since we have moved to a world of modern psychological realism, heir to the ‘Romantic critical tradition’ Rice highlighted as having done such damage to understanding of the composer’s final instantiation of operatic clemency, La clemenza di Tito, the change of heart is a ruse. The dictator who, it has seemed, might prefer a lengthy retirement in which he can indulge himself with whisky and women, has had a plan all along. Acclaimed by the people for forgiveness of those who have plotted against him, he has in fact seized the moment to add them to the ranks of the disappeared, chillingly undercutting the final vocal and orchestral rejoicing, whilst, in a sense, remaining true to the claims to total knowledge on which clemency insists. (Think of Sarastro as well as Tito.) If, sometimes, the relentless activity during arias threatened to detract from moments of musical reflection, it was a finely balanced thing. Mozart survived — and rather more than that. If anything, the classic AMOR/ROMA conflict gained by its rethinking.

Nina Solodovnikova (Giunia), Joseph Doody (Aufidio), and Luke Sinclair (Lucio Silla) © Christian Krautzberger

Luke Sinclair’s performance in the title role was fundamental to this dramatic success. Vocally strong and agile, his stage portrayal helped fill in many of the gaps. Ably assisted by Joseph Doody as Aufidio, no mean singer and actor himself, Sinclair’s Silla offered psychological depth in instability, whilst maintaining something quite other to the external world. Those in whom he almost met his match were equally impressive, complementing and contrasting like a fine wind ensemble. Katie Coventry as Cecilio offered an extensive range of dramatic colour, not entirely unlike an early piano. Nicolò Balducci’s coloratura and the dramatic use he put to it in the soprano castrato role of Cinna would have more than convinced even the most countertenor-sceptical of listeners. Nina Solodovnikova’s warmly sympathetic, yet unswervingly committed Giunia brought her music and role thrillingly to dramatic life, poignantly in tandem with the spirit world (and others) conjured up by Carlo Benedetto Cimento and the Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra, as well as the Chorus of the Salzburg Landestheater. Anita Rosati’s Celia proved a musical as well as dramatic lynchpin, stylistic command second to none. But then, I could almost have exchanged the descriptions given for each singer at will. All had cruel vocal demands placed upon them, all succeeded not only in fulfilling them, but in creating an ensemble drama that was far more than the sum of its parts.

Cimento’s alert musical leadership from the pit, allied to the long Mozartian experience of the orchestra, was just as impressive — and crucial. Tempo decisions were wise. Dramatic momentum was created and maintained. Artists on stage were given freedom to act as singing actors, nonetheless bound together by careful ensemble preparation and finely judged orchestral incitement. Affective use of keys, E-flat major in particular, was meaningfully conveyed. That is Mozart’s doing in the first instance, of course, yet it still needs – and received – sensitive, dramatically alert conducting and orchestral performance. Likewise, the composer’s extraordinary orchestration, veiled, muted strings, tender woodwind, sepulchral trombones and all, disconcerted, beguiled, and thrilled.

A welcome and apt surprise came at the beginning of the second part (the third act) when an entr’acte not a million miles away from Mozart, but which I did not recognise and which I was 99.5% sure was not Mozart, was heard. I later discovered that it was the first part of the second movement and all of the third from Johann Christian Bach’s Symphony in G minor, Op.6 No.6. Not only did it accompany the pantomime action very well; it served to remind us both of Mozart’s close connection to the ‘London Bach’ and the latter’s own Mannheim Lucio Silla, to a revised (I admit, improved) version by Mattio Verazi of De Gamerra’s libretto. Perhaps Salzburg might tackle this next? It would be a fine thing indeed to be able to see and hear the two together one day. In the meantime, this did nicely indeed.

Mark Berry

Leave a Comment