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Summer Opera: Lucio Silla in Santa Fe

Six weeks in the life of an average 16-year-old might cover a lot of iPod shuffling and MTV watching, but at that age Mozart wrote an opera seria, Lucio Silla, while he was living in Italy. The work was commissioned for the ducal theater in Milan, to open the 1772–73 season. The young Mozart arrived in Milan, having completed only the overture and a few recitatives. The latter all had to be redone because the librettist wanted to incorporate changes he had received from Metastasio, which is like Steven Spielberg offering to make a few last-minute changes to your blockbuster movie. You'd be crazy to say no. So, after arriving in Milan with his father in late October, Mozart completed the music in the space of six weeks, working in many cases directly with the singers who would create the roles.

Celena Shafer, Gregory Kunde, and Anna Christy, Lucio Silla, Santa Fe Opera, July 2005The story, drawn from Roman history, was not unknown in opera seria—J. C. Bach, the operatic model for Mozart in so many ways (see my post on J. C. Bach earlier this month), set it as an opera for Mannheim around the same time. That the libretto has to do with a nobleman who, out of nothing but enlightened good will, sets aside his privileges and forgives those beneath him is intriguing in terms of Mozart's future revolutionary sympathies and for the ending of Le Nozze di Figaro. The historical basis for the protagonist, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, was a ruthless Roman patrician famous for his crushing victory over Mithridates, whom he not only evicted from Greece but pursued into Asia Minor. Sulla returned to Rome to discover that his friends had usurped his power, but he quickly destroyed all of them and ruled again as absolute dictator. Then, in one of the more mysterious decisions of Roman history, he abdicated peacefully and retired to the countryside. It is a lesson that perhaps these librettists and composers living in late-18th-century Europe hoped to teach the absolute rulers of their day. Things might have gone better for Louis XVI if he had bothered to learn it.

Perhaps it is that the concerns of the genre are so antithetical to opera lovers living after Wagner, but late opera seria like those of Mozart do not receive many performances. I was very happy indeed to have the chance to learn more about this opera when I saw it staged last night by Santa Fe Opera. It's a very good opera, in many ways, although what Santa Fe is presenting is, mercifully, shortened. Considerably. Thank God. (The role of Aufidio, Silla's friend, has been entirely expunged in this version, as have some sections of recitative.) Even so, with the late summer starting time of 9 pm, we were not walking out to the parking lot until 12:30. As I had been told would happen, some patrons did not return to their seats after the second intermission. It's a mystery to me why anyone would not come back for the third act, after hearing the first two, especially considering who was singing.

Giunia (Celena Shafer) being dressed mid-ariaFamed mezzo-soprano Susan Graham brought her rosy tone and consummate acting to the trouser role of Cecilio, the disgraced senator who spends the opera trying to regain his espoused love, Giunia, from the treacherous title character. In an evening of flashy cadenzas, Graham had the most beautiful one, in her second-act aria ("Quest'improvviso tremito"). On par with, and possibly exceeding, Graham was soprano Celena Shafer as Giunia. Ionarts had the good fortune to hear Ms. Shafer in Washington earlier this spring, in the outrageously demanding title role of Massenet's lesser-known opera Esclarmonde, in which she was a marvel. She was no less stunning here in Santa Fe, mastering the role's technical demands (not as advanced as Esclarmonde but still difficult) and putting the vocal pyrotechnics at the service of her acted role.

Director Jonathan Kent teamed up again with scenic and costume designer Paul Brown (who worked together on Santa Fe's 2003 Kát'a Kabanová) to create a truly pleasing staging. Whatever time period the opera occupies, it is not ancient Rome, in spite of the occasional use of monolithic sculpted Roman heads and the models of the buildings on the Capitoline Hill, carried in by the chorus in one scene. The costumes had one foot in the 18th century and the other in Priscilla Queen of the Desert. The noble characters were attired in the most outrageous skirts, with beautiful fabrics draped over absurdly wide lateral hoops, extending more than an arm's length on either side. The weight of these noble costumes was contrasted to the simple black modern suits of a sort of Greek chorus of ballet dancers (Davis Berry, Kevin Gallacher, Charles Gamble, and Ronn Stewart), who create a running subtext to Mozart's opera on the margin of the action. At the conclusion, when Silla abdicates and forgives the two couples, consenting to allow them to marry, he is stripped of his enormous costume and clothed in the dancers' black suit.

The use of the quartet of dancers is ingenious, because their movements (excellent choreography by Peggy Hickey) provided some visual interest during the long introductions and interludes of the opera seria arias. Unfortunately, although the dancers moved beautifully, they did sometimes distract from the singing, especially when they moved on the heavily ornamented repeats of an aria's main section. Directors should probably use this device on the first statement, when the melody is unadorned, and then allow the audience's attention to focus on the singer for the ornamented repeat, and not vice versa. The dancers seemed to represent the malevolent male power of the dictator. At one point, they literally bury Giunia in red flowers, walking up to her in suitors' poses and then coldly hurling the flowers at or on her. In the most stunning performance of the evening, Giunia's second-act aria ("Ah se il crudel periglio"), the dancers restrain Ms. Shafer, who begins the scene in only a slip, in order to clothe her in her corset, bustle, and voluminous skirts, even lifting her into the air to put pointy shoes on her feet.

Other Reviews:

Craig Smith, Susan Graham incandescent in Mozart's 'Lucio Silla' (Santa Fe New Mexican, July 22)
The dancers present the production's most subversive ideas, incarnating the sexual battle that underlies the story: man's domination of woman. During the duet scene between Giunia and Cecilio in Act II ("Chi sa, che non sia questa"), two of the dancers, with red veils over their heads, bring to life Magritte's surrealistic painting The Lovers (1928). Although Magritte's painting shows a person dressed in female clothing and another in male clothing (the simple black suit and black tie used for the dancers in this production, I note with interest), the two male dancers presented a slow, beautiful, and very erotic pas de deux. All of this extratextual commentary may annoy purists, but I found it a compelling way to render the sexual politics of the story. In some ways, Silla is the forerunner of Don Giovanni, willing to use all of his power and authority to dominate Giunia. However, Silla relents and escapes punishment, not unlike the Count in Le Nozze di Figaro. With a simple act of forgiveness, the seducer turns the tables on those planning his downfall.

The French expression for this sort of dream casting is une distribution d'enfer (in France, anything from hell must be good). Tenor Gregory Kunde was a potent and menacing Silla, a role that was disappointingly small for him, because of the inferior tenor Mozart had to write for at the Milan premiere. The sexual politics of the story are complicated by the cross casting of the other roles: besides Susan Graham as Cecilio (a castrato role made into a trouser role), male soprano Michael Maniaci was Lucio Cinna (a castrato role preserved as a countertenor role), whose technical prowess was marred by a sometimes slightly strident production. (He has performed the role of Cherubino in Figaro, which is another gender-bending level to add to that trouser role.) This means that all four members of the couples who are eventually married are treble voices. Anna Christy was an excellent Celia, Silla's sister who is married to Cinna. She is a younger singer with consummate skills and pure tone, and the somewhat nervous vibrato, just coiled one notch too tightly, will probably mature. We are talking about the most minor flaw in a great performance. Conductor Bernard Labadie, the Music and Artistic Director of L'Opéra de Québec led the excellent orchestra, with harpsichord for the recitativo secco, with a sure hand. Santa Fe has the reputation as the leading place to see opera in the summer, a reputation merited certainly by the extraordinary polish of productions like this one.

Remaining performances of Lucio Silla at Santa Fe Opera are scheduled for July 29 and August 4 and 10.

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