In December 1772, 16-year old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, prodded by his father, Leopold, completed work on an ambitious new commission. Premiered in Milan, Lucio Silla, a supremely fanciful portrait of Roman dictator turned democrat Lucius Cornelius Sulla, met with marked success, more testament to its high-spirited score than its awkward narrative. Bridging local librettist Giovanni de Gamerra’s shaky tale with an unbroken succession of brilliantly engineered musical arches, the adolescent composer gave astonishingly mature, heartfelt voice to the opera’s central motif of forgiveness under pressure.
Nineteen years later, Mozart returned to the theme in virtually the last opera of his career, La clemenza di Tito. The notion of compassion strained but ultimately dispensed took centre stage once again. The virtuous Emperor Titus is moral heir to the repentant tyrant Sulla’s throne. The two heroic operas form ethical bookends, one a final tribute, the other a flamboyant salute to Mozart’s lifelong preoccupation with mercy and justice, frequently forestalled, ultimately invincible.
From Mitridate to Zauberflöte by way of Idomeneo and The Marriage of Figaro, love and caring, simultaneously tried and triumphant is celebrated and cherished. Mozart, the eternal optimist, demands that we think the very best of human nature however improbable.
Concluding its 30th Anniversary Season, internationally acclaimed early opera interpreter, Opera Atelier, sets a new standard for excellence, its remarkable, self-confident production of Mozart’s youthful masterpiece firm evidence of the company’s command of period performance. An all-original iteration of stage director Marshall Pynkoski and choreographer Jeanette Lajeunesse Zingg’s earlier encounters with Lucio Silla at the 2013 Salzburg Festival, seen by Opera Going Toronto when transplanted to Teatro alla Scala in 2015, the once dimly regarded piece is raised to the level of the magnificent. This is opera seria in all its over the top glory, outrageous, turbulent, thrilling.
The sprawling 18th century form, as Pynkoski noted in his pre-curtain address to an appreciative opening night audience, defies reason. Entire battalions of arias da capo march in unflinching A-B-A formation, first verse, second verse, first verse sensationally reprised. Every taxing vocal challenge awaits — daunting leaps and bounds up and down scales, perilous roulades, hair-raising runs and trills.
Music is story is music here, an irrepressible outpouring of emotion, character and plot driven by Mozart’s irrepressible energy and evident teenage delight in the newly encountered Italian style. De Gamerra’s rambling libretto provides ample excuse for musical fireworks.
Cecilio, a banished senator, fierce opponent of the despotic Silla, secretly returns to Rome, yearning to be reunited with his fiancé, Giunia. Silla, anxious to marry the beautiful noblewoman himself, daughter of a once popular civic rival he has murdered, enlists his sister Celia to overcome Giunia’s hatred. Celia is unable to shatter the grieving heroine’s steely contempt. Cecilio and Giunia meet. Cecilio is dissuaded from an attempt on Silla’s life by his friend Cinna who favours Giunia as assassin. Giunia refuses. In an unexpected act of wishful political peacemaking, Silla is granted approval to marry Giunia by the Senate. Enraged, Cecilio attempts to spirit her away but is quickly arrested and sentenced to death. Presiding over his execution, Silla is suddenly, stunningly touched by Cecilio and Giunia’s unwavering love for one another. Cecilio is pardoned and with him, his co-conspirator, Cinna who, it is proclaimed, will marry Celia. In a final unforseen about face, Silla spontaneously relinquishes his hold on power, freeing Rome from the yoke of oppression.
Bravely diving headlong into the bottomless depths of this churning romantic thriller, Opera Atelier relates de Gamerra’s twisted tale with breezy candid grace verging on the irreverent. There is more than the odd laugh lurking between lines, even embedded in the action on occasion. Entertainment values are generous and attention-grabbing. Ancient Rome crackles with Baroque melodrama conveyed in broad sweeping strokes mirrored by resident designer Gerard Gauci’s sumptuous trompe-l’oeil painted drops.
Costumes, like Gauci’s set, pay homage to mannerly 18th century fashion, Zingg’s exuberant choreography a swirl of red and gray gowns. Polished leather boots, snow white lace, satin brocade gleam on the Elgin Theatre’s gilded stage, lushly illuminated by Michelle Ramsay’s emphatic lighting, alternately sunlight and shadow, moonlight and torch flames.
As in any Opera Atelier offering, a showy sense of mise-en-scène looms larger than life in this vibrant Lucio Silla. The unleashing of passion both musical and otherwise is beyond extravagant. Pynkoski and company utterly surrender to the sheer unvarnished emotion of each pent-up theatrical moment, unleashing a torrent of unapologetic hyperbole. Grand gestures, supercharged poses, sex, a swordfight, dynamic ballet — all the prescribed active ingredients for classic dramma per musica are here. The creative team’s obvious enthusiasm for the piece is infectious.
Leading the superb 30-player strong Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, conductor David Fallis weaves an enchanting spell. Mozart’s magic fills the air, intricate, gorgeously filigreed, never disingenuous. The opera’s discrete overture, distinctly concerto-like, is conveyed with great ease and abundant joy. Secco recitatives proclaimed by first cello and harpsichord invariably delight throughout the course of Lucio Silla’s briskly managed 3-hour running time.
Singing the title role in Opera Atelier’s production, visiting artist Krešimir Špicer invests his Lucio Silla with great bravura and panache, drawing a measure of sympathy from the character’s churning inner frustration and confusion. Spotlit and alone, the mega-voiced tenor steps off stage and into the audience, a tortured, isolated Silla battling with his conscience. The ensuing arioso, Se al generoso audire (“If the generous boldness”), written, not by Mozart, but by friend and follow-up Lucia Silla composer Johann Christian Bach, essentially stops the show.
Appearing as Giunia, soprano Meghan Lindsay voices a strong, resolute heroine depicted in vivid primary colours. Gifted with numerous arias, her clear, translucent top speaks of unbending purity and goodness. Only in the privacy of her thoughts does Giunia surrender to feelings of helplessness and fear. Parto m’affretto (“I go, I hasten”), she mourns, her future menacing and uncertain. Reunited with her beloved, brave Giunia sings from the heart, wrapping herself in Mozart’s tender, warm duet D’Elisio in sen m’attendi (“In Elysium await me”). Lindsay inhabits these moments. She holds us spellbound.
Peggy Kriha Dye is Cecilio, a particularly taxing, highly physical trouser role given Pynkoski’s breathless staging. There is an appreciable amount of fire and sparks radiating from this voice, red hot and sizzling in full blistering engagement. Mozart’s volatile vengeance aria, a staple item in opera seria, Quest’ improviso tremito (“This fateful trembling”) is given an explosive airing. But Kriha Dye has a sweet tint to her instrument, too, a serene, placid tone much in evidence in Mozart’s ever shifting, kaleidoscopic score.
Inga Kalna is Cinna, the opera’s second trouser role, mellower with a deeper reach than the cast’s other three fellow sopranos, almost mezzo in scope. Coupled with a stratospheric top and a solid theatrical grounding, the fine, deft soloist successfully centers her character at the tricky intersection of sombre drama and tongue-in-cheek humour. Officially launching Act I with a dazzling Vieni ov’ amor t’invita (“Come whither love would guide thee”) ringing with coloratura and capped by a heart-stopping cadenza, Kalna sets the tone for much of what lies ahead.
Singing a rascally Celia, Mireille Asselin brings her flirty, impish characterization to life, sharp-tongued and free-spirited. Voice sparkling with charm, bursting with attitude, this is a Celia not entirely to be trusted. Asselin captivates.
Assuming the identities of stern white-garbed senators, the Opera Atelier Chorus adds an element of spectacle and stirring vocal mass to the evening. Departing from a long-standing tradition of posting singers house right in one of the Elgin’s VIP boxes, Pynkoski and company bring costumed choristers on stage as active participants. The update is welcome.
Drawing comparisons between Pynkoski/Zingg-helmed productions of Lucio Silla in Toronto and Milan is a tempting proposition to be devoutly resisted. Each presentation frames the work in a unique context. What can be said without qualification, however, is that Opera Atelier’s current self-originated offering is, quite simply, extraordinary.