Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Lucio Silla
01 June 2008
Artistic Quality: 9
Sound Quality: 8
The approximately three-hour-long (depending on cuts, pacing, etc.) Lucio Silla was composed by Mozart for Milan in 1772, as the lad was nearing his 16th birthday. A true opera seria, with dozens of da capo arias and a plot that ties itself in knots until the eponymous hero, the despotic Silla (138-78 B.C.), suddenly decides to stop being a tyrant, has a change of heart and becomes the very model of the Enlightenment, it offers the listener no context for soul-searching, almost no action, and no character growth. However, like the best opera serie, we get many splendid frozen-in-time moments in which individual characters can stop, face us, and articulate in music and text an array of human emotion: warmth, hopelessness, fury, elation, fear, tenacity. And for the most part, they do so with great bravura.
The opera was a great success in Milan, running 20 performances. The plot tells of Silla (tenor) who lusts after Giunia (soprano), whose husband Cecilio (mezzo) he has banished and declared dead. Cecilio, back in Rome but hiding, eventually tries to kill Silla but is stopped and sentenced to death. Then, for no reason made clear to anyone, Silla denounces his own dictatorship and offers clemency to all, including Cecilio’s friend Cinna (soprano) and his own sister, Celia (soprano), who loves and is loved by Cinna. A character named Aufidio (tenor), shows up occasionally; he is Silla’s bloodthirsty friend, always interested in stirring up trouble.
There are several performances of this opera available, and this new one turns out to be the best all around despite some remarkable individual performances elsewhere. The cast here is made up of not-very-well-known Scandinavians, and they are all worthy. Great credit must go to conductor Adam Fischer, who leads the superb period-instrument Danish Radio Sinfonietta in a performance that unites youthful refinement with fiery delivery, textural and textual lucidity, and just the right mood and tempo for each character’s situation. He rightly turns each aria into an event while having trimmed the recitative to a minimum; compared with Leopold Hager’s reading on Philips, with every note and word intact, we get a performance that is 32 minutes shorter and light years more exciting. (Harnoncourt on Teldec cuts the role of Aufidio entirely as well as a couple of important arias, and his tempos and dynamics define manic depression.)
The emotional centerpiece of the opera, if there is one, is Giunia, a high coloratura who has four lengthy arias to sing, requiring great virtuosity as well as a sense of longing and moral outrage. Her opening aria changes mood effectively as it progresses, and a scene near the first act’s close in which she and the chorus weep for her father (who was killed by Silla) is truly moving. Simone Nold does a fine job with her bright tone and impeccable diction; she’s well up to the challenge made by Arleen Auger (Hager) and Edita Gruberova (Harnoncourt).
Lothar Odinius is the best Silla on disc. The under-composed role (only two arias instead of four due to a last-minute cast change in Milan a week before the premiere) can be effective, and Odinius not only has the notes and coloratura, but he’s capable of sounding truly nasty and sings Peter Schreier (on both other recordings cited) under the table. Cecilio is represented with Harnoncourt by Cecilia Bartoli and with Hager by Julia Varady; the latter has great authority but struggles with pitch while the former is at her most expressive, noble, varied, and outraged. Kristina Hammarström cannot match Bartoli but she is nonetheless excellent, the tone perhaps not quite dark enough at times but the intelligence and accuracy outstanding. Henriette Bonde-Hansen sings with dignity as Cinna; Susanne Elmark’s Celia is sincere, loving, and shallow, much like Dawn Upshaw’s for Harnoncourt. Jacob Naeslund Masden’s Aufidio has a nice snarl to it.
I truly can’t imagine why anyone would want to own more than one good recording of this opera, and so if you have none, this one will make you very happy. If you have the Harnoncourt, you’ll need this to get a real sense of what the opera is about, and if you have the Hager, scene by scene you should be pleased. But Fischer almost turns this work into true drama, and his singers are marvelous. The sound throughout is bright and forward; the booklet contains interesting essays and a four-language libretto.