Thursday, 12 May 2016

Mozart - Lucio Silla (Philharmonie Paris, 2016)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Lucio Silla

Philharmonie de Paris, 2016

Laurence Equilbey, Insula orchestra, Rita Cosentino, Franco Fagioli, Olga Pudova, Alessandro Liberatore, Chiara Skerath, Ilse Eerens

Culturebox - 23 April 2016

Written when he was 16 years old, Mozart's early opera Lucio Silla (1772) is never going to be regarded on the same terms as the composer's mature masterpieces, but like most of the Mozart's early works there are flashes of brilliance and a wonderful consistency to the work that can certainly be highlighted in a sympathetic stage production. You would expect however, that as an opera seria, Lucio Silla might need something a little more than the minimal semi-staged production of this rarely performed work at the Philharmonie de Paris, but the quality of the work and the performance is apparent nonetheless.

That's because even in this early work, Mozart's writing surpasses and overcomes the traditional static nature of the opera seria with its repetitive da capo arias and what can often be generic characterisation. There's movement and life in Mozart's energetic score alone, where even the recitative is beautifully orchestrated, flowing into elegant ariosos and inventive melodic arias. A minimal stage set isn't an issue then; in this case the opera is the music, the arias and the sentiments expressed, not the dramatic playing.

The period setting isn't adhered to, but it doesn't need to be either. Lucio Silla might be an old opera - nearly 250 years old - and its subject might be about a Roman dictator in 82 BC - but its sentiments are universal and not dependent upon its historical context. Those sentiments are the familiar ones of love, betrayal, rejection and reconciliation, but with Mozart they are not generic either. They key to making Lucio Silla work is in how successfully a production can manages to capture something of the mood of the piece and complement the young Mozart's delightful score.

That's not as obvious as it sounds, since the music sound largely conventional in its arrangements, even if it is graced by Mozart's characteristic gift for elegance and melody. Try and look in that music for any deeper insight into character or motivation however, and it's not obviously there, but it can be brought out in performance. The subject of an evil dictator would presuppose death and darkness as the dominant mood, and you can at least get a sense of that in the music. The desperation of lives and love in the balance too.

The basic sets for the production directed by Rita Cosentino capture that to some extent also. Largely, the set consists of little more than a couple of panels with some familiar Italian words written graffiti-like on them in chalk. SILLA is juxtaposed with MORTE and transformed into AMORE in Act I while the Roman dictator's position is made clear, silencing opposition (faces of old dead generals with mouths scores out in red on another side of the panels), his banishment of Cecilio a means by which he can set his sights on Giulia, who believes her beloved is dead.

Act II raises the stakes with dire threats of revenge and assassination and accordingly more Italian words are chalked onto the panels, words recognisable and familiar to anyone who has heard Verdi operas - SANGUE, COLLERA, VIOLENZA, FURORE. Act III relies more on visual harmony of colour and symmetry, with the key word at the conclusion being LIBERTÀ. It's these words that underline the sentiments of each of the Acts, and with Mozart's music and some good singing it's more than enough to get across not only the nature of the work, but Mozart's already distinctive take on the traditional opera seria material.

It's a tone that Laurence Equilbey and the Insula orchestra bring out particularly well. Using period instruments and specialising in informed playing of music of this period, the orchestra bring a rich, dynamic, almost percussive sound out of this work's score. There's a harsher, grittier sound there behind the elegant surface of the melodies and rhythms that captures the darker context of the work. It might not be music that is up to the standard of Mozart at his greatest, but it's unquestionably Mozart, full of vitality, perhaps even more so for being an early work of youth. The production and the musical performance can't really be faulted if it fails to find any great depth or originality in Lucio Silla, but they can and do find the essence of Mozart in it.

The singing plays a vital part in that and it does so here with some bright youthful singing. Franco Fagioli demonstrates the benefits of having a countertenor in the role of Cecilio; soaring and lyrical Fagioli has all the emotional qualities you could want for this role. Olga Pudova too has a wonderful Mozartian voice, bright and perfectly controlled with direct expressive ornamentation that can be heard in Giulia's Act II's 'Ah se il crudel periglio' aria. The singing is equally as good from Alessandro Liberatore as Silla, Chiara Skerath as Lucio Cinna, and Ilse Eerens as Celia. The chorus remain present at the back of the stage, vitalising the work's glorious outbursts of Mozart's choral singing. A chance to revisit an early Mozart is always welcome, particularly when it has well-informed and sympathetic playing that is as good as this and when it has a production and singing that does it justice.

Links: Culturebox, Philharmonie de Paris, Insula orchestra