Thursday 27 July 2017

Mozart - Lucio Silla (Buxton, 2017)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Lucio Silla

Buxton Festival, 2017

Laurence Cummings, Harry Silverstein, Rebecca Bottone, Fflur Wyn, Joshua Ellicott, Madeleine Pierard, Karolína Plicková, Ben Thapa

Buxton Opera House - 20th July 2017

There are only five principal roles singing arias in Lucio Silla, the early opera composed by a 16 year old Mozart, but there's a feeling that the opera is a lot more complicated than it needs to be, and a lot longer than it needs to be as well. That being the case, the last thing an opera like this needs then is to be static in its delivery and unfortunately, there wasn't much in the 2017 Buxton Festival production to make this intriguing work with all its potential a little more engaging.

Even by opera seria standards, with the familiar situation of a harsh ruler using his power to disrupt the love lives of others and thus endanger his position, there's not much reason for Lucio Silla to be quite as complicated as it is. Having seized power in Rome, the dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla intends to make a point by marrying Giunia, the wife of Cecilio, the son of the deposed former ruler, who is believed to be dead. Giunia is understandably upset by this and makes those feelings known in no uncertain terms and at length throughout the opera. She occasionally spares a thought for Cecilio, who she has discovered isn't dead, and worries about her fate, but mostly it's all about her hatred for Silla.

Meanwhile Silla's sister Celia is in love with Cinna, but that really shouldn't complicate things as much as it does (although all the similar sounding names doesn't help matters), but Cinna backs Cecilio and wants to remove Silla from power, and Celia is torn between her love for Cinna and her love for her own brother the Dictator of Rome. That's basically it, but it takes a back-and-forth sequence of repetitive arias from each of the characters to eventually sort out how to deal with Silla after an hour or three, until Silla takes the noble and unexpected option of renouncing his claim as ruler. Could have saved a lot of despairing arias if he had come to this conclusion a little sooner...

Fortunately however, the arias are very good, even by Mozart's standards and at such a young age. If somewhat conventional in their form they are elegant, delightful and not without some sense of feeling for situation and character. You wouldn't know this however from the direction which makes no effort to support what little character detail there is but saddles the performers with standing statically in place, with only an angry stride or two and the occasional imperious flick of the head over the shoulder to add emphasis to their words.

That's about as expressive as it gets here in Harry Silverstein's production, but the performers are nonetheless often able to make a little more of it, mainly through the quality of the singing. Rebecca Bottone takes the honours as Giunia, handling Mozart's precipitous high to low leaps and demonstrating some lovely coloratura. Fflur Wyn's sweet-voiced delivery and presence were more than capable for the challenges of Cecilia. Although the lead figure in the opera, Silla never feels like the main player here and he is further hampered in this production by conforming to stock 'baddie' mannerisms, but Joshua Ellicott sings the role well.

Most of the roles and much of the colour of Lucio Silla however is determined by the fact that most of the arias are given over to sopranos. It doesn't really help differentiate characters or provide much in the way of musical variety, but in the 'masculine' roles, Madeleine Pierard's singing of the castrato role of Cecilio was assured and well-performed. Karolína Plicková too brought some character to the trouser role of Cinna, managing to raise a laugh at his character's indecisiveness when the chance comes to assassinate Silla and he is left standing there with a knife in his hand and shrugs at his inability to do anything with it. Aufidio doesn't have any arias to sing, but Ben Thapa likewise finds ways to bring character and humour to the role.

The production design had nothing much to offer the interpretation in the way of visual interest. The stage is mostly bare, with the only real decoration being projections and colour for the floor patterns of the stage. In modern dress with generic military uniforms, there are no Romanesque arches or buildings, and no differentiation to suggest the hanging gardens or dungeon locations, public spaces or private chambers specified in the libretto. The backdrop consists of an undecorated wooden framework structure that we unaccountably appear to be looking at from backstage. A throne-like chair, some modern signs (the M and RI of the defeated Marius eventually replaced by LUCIO SILLA) are the only real variations of prop decoration.

Fortunately the fine singing made up for the lack of imagination in the direction and set design, as did Laurence Cummings's conducting of The English Concert orchestra, his direction from the harpsichord keeping the pace and rhythm of the opera flowing.

Links: Buxton International Festival