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Notes from the 2013 Salzburg Festival ( 6 )
Lucio Silla • W.A.Mozart

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart • Lucio Silla

Pretty to Die for and Deadly Boring

Pictures above and below courtesy Salzburg Festival, © Matthias Baus
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The Haus für Mozart was rather sparsely filled on Friday afternoon, August 2nd, to welcome Mark Minkowski and his Musiciens du Louvre for the third performance of Mozart’s early opera, Lucio Silla.

The difficulty of performing Mozart well becomes increasingly obvious with each mediocre Mozart one gets to hear… but so does a very good one. Just such a performance is much appreciated, indeed necessary, if one is to sit through Mozart’s decidedly less-than-great early works, to which the 16 year old composer’s Lucio Silla decidedly belongs.

Lightness of touch and fervent vitality are two necessary ingredients—and Minkowski and his band certainly have plenty of that on offer. And they packed it into the overture which came out swaggering and ebullient and yet an altogether delicate little masterpiece. It suggested that perhaps the absence of any meaningful drama in Giovanni de Gamerra’s libretto could be overcome by the music. That, it turns out, was

beyond naïve.

Lucio Silla, despite or because or independently of Marshall Pynkoski’s* production and Antoine Fointaine’s costumes and Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg’s choreography, is an insufferable opera if it is music-drama that you are looking for. The actual story could be told in 17 minutes, easily, on stage—instead of four hours. Endlessly repetitive dacapo arias and emotional stock gestures overtly emoted by largely predictable stock characters put this art-form of early, uninspired opera seria beyond all redemption. So perhaps it was only logical that the original Opéra Atelier team went all-out museum-art on this work— all form and structure and beauty, and balance… harking back to Mozart’s time, putting classical columns and pretty dancers and 18th century costumes on stage, and even lighting the stage in a way that evoked the dim gas-lit illumination placed across the front of the stage that would have existed then. Clever in a way: Acknowledge theatrical defeat up front and make the best of it. The result was an artistic Mausoleum for Mozart, pretty to die for, and deadly boring.

There are people who want that, of course, and they—notably those who didn’t fall asleep at some point or another—were excessively well served. More people still really just care about Rolando Villazón, whose international fan-club was out in full strength. Full strength is incidentally something Villazón might have liked to be in himself… but even so he pushed himself through the title-rôle valiantly, effortfully, a bit stuffed and muffled, occasionally frayed, and with a slight tendency to be flat. But he’s also got enormous dramatic coloring to his tenor: an instrument that isn’t all that great anymore but which he still plays very well… assuming that the very way he plays it isn’t what contributes to the decline. In any case, the voice-fetishists cared not and in his grand last aria Villazón mustered all he had to unequivocally impressive effect. All awhile, in costume and with his dainty hairdo, he looked like he was auditioning for Rowan Atkinson’s part in Blackadder III.

The better voices were the four women around the sole man in the ensemble, starting with the very decent Inga Kalna as Lucio Cinna, a trouser rôle that attained a hint of buffo in the production by ever so drolly not welcoming the advances of Silla’s sister Celia. Oh, the chuckles! Marianne Crebassa as exiled, Giunia-loving Cecilio, the other trouser rôle, was spared the ham and focused on employing her fine mezzo clearly and without too much personality. The lady-ladies Giunia (Olga Peretyatko) and Celia (Eva Liebau) were most attractive in every way. Liebau’s bright and controlled, pretty voice, worked almost like an extension of her surroundings. Olga Peretyatko added a little more color and character to that, and whinged and whined and rejected and insisted tearfully, boldly, and indignantly. Almost a shame she and her colleagues became singing accessories.

Since Mozart repeats virtually the same story in the same opera seria style at the very end of his career, with all the tools at his availability that he’d acquired by then, there’s really no reason to opt for Lucio Silla over La Clemenza di Tito, if a rare Mozart opera seria is what you want. A grudging last admission: As horrible as coordinated ballet-boy swordfights on stage are (and they are always horrible!), the one choreographed for this production was by far the least horrifying and least corny, most sensitive to the music and most poignantly stylized I have seen.

*He’s for real and not, as a smart alec writer suggested, a pseudonym for Mark Minkowski meddling himself. Watching this interview, although not explicitly about Lucio Silla and made a few years ago, really explains the team’s thinking behind their production. It doesn’t make Silla a better work or immediately heighten our ability to appreciate it appreciation of works like Silla, but it shows why the approach—if one has to approach Silla at all—makes sense.