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Mozart, Ascanio in Alba :
(concert performance). Soloists, Europa Galante / Fabio Biondi, director. Barbican, London. 06.06.2006 (ED)

 

 

Venus: Patrizia Biccirè (soprano)
Ascanio: Carlos Mena (counter-tenor)
Silvia: Anna Chierichetti (soprano)
Aceste: Markus Schäfer (tenor)
Fauno: Sunhae Im (soprano)



“I cannot see how you can have any use for a composer or useless people of that sort, but if it nevertheless gives you pleasure I do not wish to stop you.”

Thus responded the ever delicate Empress Maria Theresa to her son Archduke Ferdinand when asked if he could take Mozart into his service. That the exchange of views took place shortly after the premiere of Ascanio in Alba given on the occasion of Ferdinand’s marriage in 1771, is known. Whether the festa teatrale’s plot, a barely disguised allegory set in legend on the theme of just marriage, or the ‘casting’ of the Empress as Venus contributed to her view is unknown. In any case the remark says more about Maria Theresa than it does about the then fifteen year old Mozart.

The plot, such as it is, is largely controlled by Venus. She descends and requires Ascanio to hide his identity from the nymph Silvia, whom he is to marry, as a test of her virtue and fortitude. Silvia faces Ascanio and recognises him from her dreams as her beloved, yet is puzzled why he ignores her, yet she still loves him. Their marriage is the eventual reward. Along the way a priest, Aceste, and a faun add flattering remarks.

The concert performance that opened the 2006 Mostly Mozart Festival at the Barbican made no apologies for juvenilia. But then, even with regard to juvenilia there is that by Mozart and then there is that by almost anyone else. It is not that the composition per se was particularly inventive – although one hears hints towards future compositional directions in Act II – but that the work shows such complete mastery of musical form and language in one so young. The continuo trio of harpsichord, theorbo and violone brought attention to the stylistic models Mozart worked within whilst allowing for individuality of employment to be displayed. In tutti passages much atmosphere was added through the pointed use of brass, woodwind and timpani, their use being on the whole restrained elsewhere. Vocally, the wilder flights of Mozart’s fancy are shown in his coloratura flourishes for Silvia and Fauno whilst finding a balance in the lovers’ tender exchanges.

With performers less inclined than Europa Galante towards a rhythmically alert and cleanly phrased playing style I could imagine some of the music sounding formulaic; rather akin to an opera by Haydn, for example. Fabio Biondi, who directed enthusiastically from the violin as is his usual practice, encouraged unfussy and bold playing throughout that emphasised the naturalness of Mozart’s writing not to mention its inherent lyricism also.

Patrizia Biccirè, who stood in at late notice for Sandrine Piau, assumed Venus with authority and strong sense of vocal line even if it was not a conventionally commanding performance. However, given the chamber scale of the performance as a whole the integral qualities of her approach were much to be valued as the evening progressed. Carlos Mena’s clearly projected and supple counter-tenor took the role of Ascanio in its stride. Anna Chierichetti characterised Silvia with delicacy that appropriately brought out the character’s virtue. The Act II confrontation of the lovers was particularly well brought off: her phrasing grew increasing impetuous as she tried to discover his identity. His anguish at having to withhold his name was suggested by a distinct tightening of the tone.

The smaller though scarcely less interesting or demanding roles were expertly taken. Sunhae Im grasped the da capo florid writing with confidence and phrased attentively whilst firing off the required top E-flat with remarkable ease. That emotion rather than pure technique marked her performance was notable. Markus Schäfer’s Aceste provided a much needed counterpoint. With dry though firm tone he gave the text with expressive involvement, which became most urgent in the arias.

If the work is more a curiosity than a masterpiece it is nonetheless worthy of an occasional performance. Hasse, a famous musician and composer of the other opera written for Archduke Ferdinand’s wedding, must have thought so: “This boy will cause the rest of us to be forgotten.” How right he was.

 

 


Evan Dickerson


 

 

 



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)