Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Exploring early Mozart: Classical Opera in Grabmusik and Apollo et Hyacinthus

Mozart: Grabmusik - Benjamin Appl (Photo Classical Opera)
Mozart: Grabmusik - Benjamin Appl (Photo Classical Opera)
Mozart Symphony No.45a, Grabmusik, Apollo et Hyacinthus; Gemma Summerfield, Benjamin Appl, Benjamin Hulett, Klara Ek, Tim Mead, James Hall, dir: Thomas Guthrie, Classical Opera, cond: Ian Page; St John's Smith Square
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jun 13 2017
Star rating: 4.0

Three early works by Mozart show his remarkable emotional range

For their final exploration of Mozart's 11th year, Ian Page and Classical Opera presented a triple bill of works which included Mozart's first opera. At St John's Smith Square on 13 June 2017, they presented Mozart's Symphony No. 45a, Grabmusik and Apollo et Hyacinthus with Gemma Summerfield, Benjamin Appl, Benjamin Hulett, Klara Ek, Tim Mead, and James Hall, in productions directed by Thomas Guthrie, and designed by Rhiannon Newman Brown.

Mozart: Grabmusik - Gemma Summerfield (Photo Classical Opera)
Mozart: Grabmusik - Gemma Summerfield (Photo Classical Opera)
St John's Smith Square does not lend itself ideally to staging, and Guthrie's production was simple and generally effective, with Rhiannon Newman Brown opting for stylish yet neutral modernism in the costumes.

We opened with the early Symphony No. 45a, a short but charming piece which was full of vigour and life. The characteristic slow movement showed the young Mozart's way with expressive melody, though it did slightly out-stay its welcome. The piece effectively formed an overture, and during the latter part of the symphony, Guthrie started to introduce people onto the stage, and this moved directly into the Grabmusik.

Mozart: Apollo et Hyacinthus - Klara Ek (Photo Classical Opera)
Mozart: Apollo et Hyacinthus - Klara Ek (Photo Classical Opera)
Grabmusik was part of the German tradition of a scenic oratorio in front of an image of Christ's tomb. The work takes the form of a dialogue between the soul (Benjamin Appl) and the angel (Gemma Summerfield) in which the anxious soul is answered by compassion from the angel, with the two ending with a duet. Appl brought astonishing virtuosity and great intensity to his opening aria, really making the soul's intense trouble seem real. Appl's command of the German words was superb, making the long aria vividly engaging. Gemma Summerfield brought a lovely consoling elegance to her aria as the angel. She was vibrantly expressive, though her words lacked Appl's incision. The two ended with a beautifully moving duet, with the two singers blending their phrasing beautifully.

Mozart: Apollo et Hyacinthus - Benjamin Hulett (Photo Classical Opera)
Mozart: Apollo et Hyacinthus - Benjamin Hulett (Photo Classical Opera)
Apollo et Hyacinthus was Mozart's first opera, commissioned for the grammar school attached to Salzburg's Benedictine University. The school had a tradition of performing a Latin play, and Mozart's work was commissioned to be performed between the acts of the play. The plot deals with the myth of Apollo (Tim Mead) and Hyacinthus (Gemma Summerfield), but somewhat bowdlerised so that Apollo lusts after Hyacinthus' sister Melia (Klara Ek). The villain of the piece remains Zephyrus (James Hall), and added to the characters was Melia and Hyacinthus' father Oebalus (Benjamin Hulett).

Apart from the small role of the priest of Apollo (Aaron O'Hare and Richard Latham), all the roles were originally sung by teenagers from the school which means that they must have had a musically talented bunch. Mozart might only have been 11 when he wrote it, but the arias and duets are complex, large-scale and remarkably emotionally apposite. This is a confident work, and you felt that all Mozart needed was a good librettist. Here, despite some terrific arias, the narrative sagged somewhat. Mozart seemed to be most interested in the human situations, so we had Tim Mead and Klara Ek in a duet arguing like a regular couple, Benjamin Hulett agonising intensely over his dead son, and Hulett and Ek lamenting movingly over Hyacinthus' body.

But the recitative felt dull and did plod rather, despite the best efforts of the performers. I cannot help feeling that the work would have been a more communicative piece of theatre if it had been translated into English. If Latin, then why not Germanic pronunciation? As it was the English accented Latin combined with the slight make-do and mend nature of the production lent an air of the school play (one friend rather naughtily mentioned The History Boys).

All concerned in all three works took Mozart's music at its serious best and brought out the remarkable expressive qualities.

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