Monday 10 July 2017

Astonishing music: Mozart's Lucio Silla at Buxton Festival

Mozart: Lucio Silla - Buxton Festival - Madeleine Pierard, Joshua Ellicott, Rebecca Bottone, Ben Thapa (Photo Robert Workman)
Mozart: Lucio Silla - Buxton Festival - Madeleine Pierard, Joshua Ellicott, Rebecca Bottone, Ben Thapa (Photo Robert Workman)
Mozart Lucio Silla; Joshua Ellicott, Rebecca Bottone, Madeleine Pierard, Fflur wyn, Karolina Plickova, Ben Thapa, dir: Harry Silverstein, the English Concert, cond: Laurence Cummings; Buxton Festival
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 9 2017
Star rating: 4.0

A young cast make light of the astonishing technical feats required of them in Mozart's teenage opera

Mozart's opera Lucio Silla was the last of his three operas written for Milan (following Mitridate Re di Ponto and Ascania in Alba). Premiered in 1772, it is an astonishing work for a sixteen-year-old. Not regularly performed, it was the third opera in this year's Buxton Festival, opening on Sunday 9 July, a co-production with the English Concert which was recently announced as the festival's Associate Orchestra. Laurence Cummings conducted and Harry Silverstein directed, with designs by Linda Buchanan, and lighting by Mike GunningRebecca Bottone was Giunia, Joshua Ellicott was Lucio Silla, Madeleine Pierard was Cecilio, Karolina Plickova was Cinna, Fflur Wyn was Celia and Ben Thapa was Aufidio.

Mozart: Lucio Silla - Buxton Festival - Karolina Plickova, Fflur Wyn (Photo Robert Workman)
Karolina Plickova, Fflur Wyn (Photo Robert Workman)
Following Mozart's return to Salzburg from Milan, his employer the Archbishop of Salzburg restricted Mozart's abilities to accept outside opera commissions so Lucia Silla was Mozart's last opera seria before Idomeneo (1780/81). The intervening years wrought a big change to the emotional intelligence of Mozart's style. Lucia Silla lacks the depth of characterisation and emotional pull of Mozart's later opera. But it is a striking work and notable for a series of astonishing arias.

Most of the arias are long, and full of technical challenges and it was a credit to the young cast that they performed this difficult music so creditably, and invested it in such emotional depth. The length of the arias form a dramaturgical challenge in their own right, making the music tell for such a length of time not to mention the sheer number of notes.

The plot forms a remarkable complementary parallel to that of Mozart's last opera seria, La Clemenzo di Tito. Both involve a circle around an emperor of Rome, whose affairs are troubled by the emperor's choosing a bride who is already spoken for. In Lucio Silla, Silla (Joshua Ellicott) has become dictator of Rome having killed his rival, the father of Giunia (Rebecca Bottone), Silla loves Giunia, who hates him, and is betrothed to Cecilio (Madeleine Pierard) who is in exile. Silla uses his sister Celia (Fflur Wyn) as a go-between, and Celia is in love with Cinna (Karolina Plickova) who is a friend and support of Cecilio.

The set was basically abstract, and with very effective lighting used to change mood. Though I did wonder whether with such an unknown opera, would not a more concrete setting have provided a better guide to the audience?

Mozart: Lucio Silla - Buxton Festival - Madeleine Pierard, Rebecca Bottone (Photo Robert Workman)
Madeleine Pierard, Rebecca Bottone  (Photo Robert Workman)
Harry Silverstein and Linda Buchanan set the opera in a loose modern-day dictatorship, with an eclectic mix of costumes. Particularly notable was the skill and confidence with which both Karolina Plickova (Cinna) and Madeleine Pierard (Cecilio) incarnated the male characters, a stunning piece of stagecraft. But whilst Silverstein drew strong individual performances from his cast, he tended to have a rather limited repertoire when it came to staging long Da Capo arias, too often characters would reach the end of a section, start to go off, reconsider, turn and continue. It works once or twice, but became predictable. Also, the arias had little sense of dramaturgical development, you never felt that the repeated A section was being marked differently to the opening having been changed by the B section. What effect the repeats did have was usually down the singers' musicianship.

Rebecca Bottone made a moving Giunia, coping admirably with the terrifying demands of the vocal writing and giving a fine portrait of someone really torn, and coming to the reluctant conclusion that she was going to die with her lover. Bottone was telling in Giunia's final accompanied recitative and aria, the emotional high-point of the opera. Giunia's betrothed, Cecilio was sung with consistent style and a nice sense of surly rebellion and unpredictability by Madeleine Pierard. The plot requires Cecilio to hesitate a lot, to be impulsive and then to draw back (a typical opera seria device) and Pierard really managed to invest this with our sympathy.

Mozart: Lucio Silla - Buxton Festival - Karolina Plickova, Fflur Wyn (Photo Robert Workman)
Karolina Plickova, Fflur Wyn (Photo Robert Workman)
The role of Celia is the secondary female role, but the music is no less difficult and Fllur Wyn sang Celia with sparkling coloratura. But she also made Celia's unspoken love for Cinna profoundly touching, with a couple of very moving arias. Though there was one very strange moment when she sang about not daring to tell him she loved him, whilst he was sitting there moving very slowly in his chair. Czech soprano Karolina Plickova was making her UK debut and created a strong impression as Cinna, whose role was to support Cecilio and to end up involving himself in the fight against Silla. Plickova was consistently stylish and passionate in a role which seem rather under-written.

Joshua Ellicott made a strong impression as the dictator Silla, one minute railing against the conspirators and threatening Giunia for refusing to marry him, and the next minute wracked by anxieties and worries. He made the lieto fine work, though it is not the most convincing of dramatic moments. Ben Thapa was notable in the small role of Aufidio, Silla's confident, and he made Aufidio's recitative vivid though I wish he had been allowed his aria.

The recitative really zipped along at times, and there good feel that of the cast investing this with vibrant drama. In the pit Laurence Cummings drew strong playing from the English Concert, with the players relishing the imagination and skill which Mozart used in the orchestrations of his opera. The arias were full of instrumental felicities and lovely colours. In fact, it was in the handling of the orchestra that Mozart's maturity showed best, there was less of the sense of showing off that there was in the arias and more a feeling of bringing emotional colour to the music.

Mozart: Lucio Silla - Buxton Festival -  (Photo Robert Workman)
Mozart: Lucio Silla - Buxton Festival -  (Photo Robert Workman)
The opera was cut, inevitably, with a single interval in the middle of Act Two and the running time kept to three hours. This was a notable achievement for the way the young cast brought the music alive and really made light of the technical difficulties.

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