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Mozart Lucio 9029637734
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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Lucio Silla (1772)
Giunia: Olga Pudova (soprano); Cecilio: Franco Fagioli (countertenor); Lucio Silla: Alessandro Liberatore (tenor); Lucio Cinna: Chiara Skerath (soprano); Cecilia: Ilse Eerens (soprano)
Le Jeune Choeur de Paris
Insula Orchestra/Laurence Equilbey
rec. live, 22-24 June 2021, Auditorium Patrick Devedjian, La Seine Musicale, Boulogne-Billancourt
Italian libretto with English translation and brief commentary in French, English, and German included
ERATO 9029637734 [2 CDs: 126]

Lucio Silla, K. 135, a three-act opera seria (Dramma per musica in tre atti) by the then sixteen-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to a libretto by Giovanni de Gamerra (modified by Pietro Metastasio), received its premiere on 26 December 1772 at the Teatro Regio Ducale in Milan under the composer’s direction. Although the opera received a total of 26 performances, it was not performed again in Mozart’s lifetime; it also turned out to be the final commission that he received from Italy.

The plot is based loosely on events during the reign of Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix (138-78 BCE) in Rome during 79 BCE. Cecilio, a Roman senator whom Silla had banished, has returned secretly to be with his beloved Giunia, the daughter of Gaius Marius, Silla’s mortal enemy. Giunia refuses Silla’s demands to marry him. Silla’s sister Celia loves Cecilio’s friend Cinna, who conspires to depose the dictator. After failing to murder Silla, Cecilio and Giunia are imprisoned. Silla shows mercy by allowing the two couples (Giunia and Cecilio, Celia and Cinna) to marry, inviting the exiles to return, resigning as emperor, and restoring the Republic.

Many difficulties emerged during preparations to stage the opera, the most serious of which was that illness forced the tenor for whom the title role was conceived to withdraw before rehearsals began. Mozart’s father, Leopold, described the replacement, Bassano Morgnoni, as an amateur in a letter from 2 January 1773. As a result, Mozart composed only two arias for the title character rather than the four prescribed by the libretto (see footnote).

The lack of a final aria to prepare the audience for Silla’s volte-face in the final scene can be interpreted as a strength if we consider his awareness that many of his subjects hate him (there had been numerous plots to overthrow and kill him). His decision to pardon his enemies and announce his resignation as emperor before the Senate, though surprising, is logical because it provides an opportunity to mitigate at least some of the hostility toward him and may save his own life (he understands that the conspirators in custody would hardly be the last insurgents against his rule).

For a series of performances at the Salzburger Festspiele in 2012/13, Marc Minkowski addressed the abrupt transformation of Silla’s behaviour by interpolating a recitativo accompagnato and aria ‘Se al generoso ardire…’ from Johann Christian Bach’s Lucio Silla (1775) into Act 3 before the final recitative in which Silla shows magnanimity. The texts for the recitative and aria are in the libretto and probably would have been set by Mozart if not for the inadequate substitute tenor. Minkowski’s practice respects the eighteenth-century pasticcio convention and unites music by Mozart with that of one of his childhood mentors.

Live performances during June 2021 are the basis for a new release by Erato, a subsidiary of Warner Classics. Investment by a major record label will hopefully lead to more frequent performances of this opera. Featuring the Insula Orchestra conducted by Laurence Equilbey, this recording is only the second on period instruments; the other, under the direction of Nikolaus Harnoncourt, was recorded in 1989 live in the Wiener Konzerthaus. One unfortunate characteristic that these two recordings share is that they are abridged (over an hour’s worth of music is missing from each, including the entire tenor role of Aufidio, a tribune and friend of Lucio Silla). The reference for this opera remains Leopold Hager’s complete reading of the score from 1975 with soloists who are almost uniformly superior to those on this new recording. Previously available as part of the Philips Complete Mozart edition (1991) and the Mozart 225 collection (2016), Hager’s recording deserves to be remastered to 24 Bit/96 Khz and reissued with the full libretto and the textual commentary that accompanied it.

Equilbey makes a persuasive case for recognising this opera as much more than a novelty or a mere harbinger of Mozart’s subsequent theatrical works. Her conducting throughout can be described as precise and restrained with brisk, but not rushed, tempi that emphasise lyric beauty and the complexity of Mozart’s scoring for modest orchestral forces (two flutes, two oboes, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, strings, and harpsichord); interplay between the instruments and the vocal lines is clear and detailed.

The conductor’s note inside the booklet cites the countertenor Franco Fagioli as the first male singer to assume the castrato role of Cecilio since the opera was revived in the twentieth century. Fagioli lends the character a sense of courage and, when awaiting what he believes will be his execution along with Giunia, resolve to face his demise with dignity. Despite Fagioli’s virtues, particularly his technical command of the demanding coloratura, he occasionally emits sounds that border on shrieking. He does not equal Cecilia Bartoli in the same role in Harnoncourt’s recording because she expresses emotion without allowing it to gain control over her voice. The most satisfying assumption of this role remains that of Julia Varady in Hager’s recording because she imbues the part with a degree of intensity that demonstrates why Silla should fear Cecilio. Varady handles the difficult coloratura effortlessly and never lapses into histrionics; her sovereign technical fluency is in evidence, but it never draws attention to itself.

Olga Pudova provides the most remarkable vocal performance on the new recording by conveying Giunia’s complex and sometimes conflicting feelings: passionate tenderness for Cecilio, courage in the face of death, and hatred for Silla, who seeks to force her into marrying him. Pudova offers what may be described as a kind of vocal acting: the character seems vivid even on an audio recording. She proves just how skilfully Mozart crafted his music to add emotional depth to the text that other settings of the libretto do not quite reach. Even if Pudova does not surpass Edita Gruberová with Harnoncourt (the recorded reference for this role), she provides a thoroughly engaging account.

Alessandro Liberatore makes more of the truncated title role than Peter Schreier did in the Hager and Harnoncourt readings. As a native speaker, Liberatore articulates the text with ease in contrast to Schreier, whose strengths were in Lieder and oratorios. Silla, as portrayed by Liberatore, is ruthless, prone to rage, and astonishingly humane when he renounces his power, an act of clemency that prefigures Bassa Selim’s decision to free Belmonte, the son of his enemy, in Die Entführung aus dem Serail (1782). In other words, Liberatore makes Silla’s transformation realistic and palpable.

Chiara Skerath reveals the extent of Lucio Cinna’s hatred of Silla through her pointed delivery of the text and the anger that she conveys. Skerath’s main competition on record is Edith Mathis, one of the great Mozartian sopranos of the last century, whose air of dignity amid the conspiracy to murder Silla reminds us that Cinna is a man of rank and the betrothed of Celia, the dictator’s sister. The soprano, Ilse Eerens, embodies a Celia who loves Cinna, even though he is plotting to kill Silla, her brother. Eerens lends the character a soothing quality in her three arias (the third at the opening of Act 3 is a ‘cavatina’), but the absence of so much recitative deprives the sung texts of their contexts. Without access to a copy of the full libretto, it is difficult to comprehend the meaning of Celia’s words in the arias; the effect is not far removed from a ‘highlights’ disc in which the focus is exclusively on the beauty of individual musical numbers.

Equilbey’s recording is a valuable addition to the small discography and could have been a safe introduction to the work if the recitatives and music omitted during the performances had been recorded subsequently for insertion into the final release. An unintentional irony that plagues many period-instrument performances is a tendency to be selective about which aspects of the primary sources to observe. It is impossible to reconstruct historical performances and the circumstances under which they took place, but it is possible in many cases to provide complete accounts of musical texts when the score survives intact, as is the case here.

One point that emerges from Leopold Mozart letters during preparations for the initial performances of Lucio Silla is that there were rehearsals specifically for the recitatives. The original performers for this and presumably other operas of the period recognised that the text between musical numbers was integral to the story. Shortening, eliminating, or rewriting recitatives alters an opera in ways that contradict the goals that many proponents of period performance profess to pursue (i.e., enabling listeners to savour the original text with the aid of instruments used during the era its composition).

Lucio Silla is a top-tier music drama: Mozart’s music compares favourably with opere serie by respected exponents of the genre, including Johann Adolph Hasse and Niccolò Jommelli; de Gamerra’s libretto has substantial literary value, particularly the psychological depth of the individual characters and their relationships with each other. The libretto encompasses themes that remain central to our lives, including abuse of power, manipulation, revenge, cruelty, political intrigues, love as a force that inspires devotion and self-sacrifice, and forgiveness of mortal enemies. This work rewards repeated listening because it is intellectually and emotionally engaging.

The presentation by Erato is convenient for storage: a sturdy clam shell box contains the two CDs in individual cardboard sleeves and a booklet with a full libretto in Italian and English, as well as colour photographs from the stage production. A concise essay by Florence Badol-Bertrand offers a thoughtful explanation for Silla’s unexpected mercy at the end of the opera.

Daniel Floyd

The Mozarteum has provided an account of Lucio Silla‘s conception, composition, and initial performances (German only) – link.

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