A Dazzling Revival of a Mozart Rarity


by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, directed by Marshall Pynkoski

Opera Atelier, Elgin Theatre, Toronto

April 7-16, 2016


“A Dazzling Revival of a Mozart Rarity”


Opera Atelier’s production of Mozart’s Lucio Silla is an unequivocal triumph.  Much written about this opera that Mozart composed in 1772 when only 16 years old claims that it is static, improbable and problematic.  Yet, in OA’s production the work shines forth as thrilling and completely engaging – a work abounding in such beautiful music that it seems incomprehensible that it should have fallen into obscurity. 


At the request of conductor Marc Minkowski, OA’s co-artistic directors Marshall Pynkoski and Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg first staged Lucio Silla at the Morzartwoche Salzburg in 2013 and then at the Salzburg Festival the same year.  The production received such high praise it was remounted in 2015 at La Scala in Milan.  Two stars of the La Scala production are featured in the Toronto remount which is the work’s Canadian premiere – tenor Krešimir Špicer in the title role and soprano Inga Kalna in the trousers role of Cinna.  


The story is inspired by the life of the historical figure Lucius Cornelius Sulla (c.138-78bc), the dictator who preceded Julius Caesar.  A rebellion against Sulla was led by Gaius Marius (called Mario in the opera) with the consul Cinna.  Most noteworthy in an 18th-century librettist like Giovanni de Gamerrra is that Sulla resigned his dictatorship and retired to the country.


Gamerra’s fictional explanation for this is that Silla’s renouncing politic power parallels his renouncing love.  Throughout the opera Silla has lusted after Giunia, who is already engaged to Cecilio, whom he has banished.  Yet, Cecilio secretly returns from exile with Cinna and seeks to overthrow Silla and rescue Giunia.  Recognizing the strength of the love between Cecilio and Giunia, Silla realizes that mercy will make him more renowned than cruelty and magnanimously gives Giunia to Cecilio and relinquishes his power.         


In his speech before the opera, Marshall Pynkoski described how, after avoidingopera seria for decades, he had finally come to understand it.  As a director he had been averse to the da capo aria, the standard form of aria in opera seria, structured in the form A-B-A, where the second A section is an ornamented repetition of the earlier A section.  Logically, a da capo aria does not move the action forward since it ends the same way it begins.  In Pynkoski’s view this necessarily leads to stasis since the action moves forward only through the recitatives.  Fortunately, Pynkoski found a brilliantly simple solution to this problem that not only frees Lucio Silla from stasis but increases its theatricality. 


Throughout the performance Pynkoski had the soloist sing the A and B sections of the da capo aria immersed in the context of the action.  For the repeated A section, lights dimmed on the scene and the singer would move downstage centre into a spotlight, thus singing the A section as kind of built-in encore.  Depending on where the aria was placed, the singer would then step back into the relit suspended action or exit as the next scene was revealed.  To present the da capoarias both as expressions of emotion and as vocal showpieces lent the opera an unexpectedly modern sense of metatheatricality, where the repeated breaking of the fourth wall emphasized the opera as opera.


Some have claimed that Silla’s clemency at the end comes out of nowhere.  Pynkoski uses three techniques to mitigate this notion.  He emphasizes a playfulness between Silla and his sister Celia in Silla’s first appearance that uncovers a comic, non-tyrannical side to the character.  From then scene on, Pynkoski treats Celia as a spirit of comedy whose cheerful certainty that events will turn out happily contrasts with the earnestness of everyone around her.  Second, Pynkoski’s judicious cutting of the score emphasizes the many moments when Silla expresses the conflict within himself between power and love.  


Third and most remarkable of all, Pynkoski at the suggestion of Marc Minkowski replaces Silla’s short recitative before the finale with the aria “Se al generoso ardire” where Silla decides to be merciful.  The aria is not by Mozart but Johann Christian Bach, who in 1775 composed his own Lucio Silla to the same libretto by Giovanni de Gamerrra.  Displeased with the tenor assigned to sing Silla, Mozart chose not to set this text by de Gamerra, but Bach did.  Pynkoski has Špicer as Silla step down from the stage to sing the aria from in front of the orchestra pit.  For the few who know, this signals that the aria is thus literally outside of Mozart’s opera.  For everyone else, it appears that Silla is humbling himself and appealing to the audience directly to help him in his decision.  The ploy works beautifully.


The sets and costumes of OA’s house designer Gerard Gauci replaced those of Antoine Fontaine at La Scala.  Gauci’s sets featured traditional 18th-century style drops, exquisitely painted in forced perspective, that facilitated instant scene changes sometimes even while performers were in mid-aria.  Gauci moved the setting forward, as is usual in OA, to the time of the opera’s composition.   


Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg’s choreography is confined primarily to the choral sections of the work and enhanced their celebratory grandeur.  The most striking coordination between Pynkoski, Zingg and fight director Jennifer Parr is in Cecilio’s rescue of Giunia who to defy Silla threatens to stab herself before the Roman Senate.  In the fantastically staged trio “Quell’orgoglioso sdegno”, Cecilio parries with five dancers armed with epees, the fight turns into slow-motion when Silla sings and it freezes when Cecilio and Giunia sing together.    




All of OA’s regular soloists outdo themselves in this production, imbued with vitality and an overriding unanimity of purpose, but the one who inevitably stands out is Latvian soprano Inga Kalna making her OA debut.  With a full, crystalline voice, she thrills the audience by tossing off the spectacular ornamentation of her three arias with precision and panache.


As Silla, Špicer is able to colour his warm tenor with lust or anger or to float his pure tone to reflect Silla’s vulnerability and doubt as in the lovely “Se al generoso ardire.”  With such expressive singing combined with his naturally fine acting, Špicer makes Silla’s internal struggles look like a premonition of Mozart’s Tito almost 20 years later – a role Špicer sang for OA in 2011.  


Soprano Peggy Kriha Dye has always given superlative performances for OA, but in the trousers role of Cecilio she reveals new reserves of vocal power and even greater expressivity.  It was a passionate, utterly compelling performance, particularly of the opera’s best known aria “Pupille amate”.  As Giunia, Meghan Lindsay also shines with greater vocal strength and control than ever before and dazzles with her coloratura passages.  As Celia, Mireille Asselin deploys a deceptively delicate voice that copes with its frequent passages of staccato coloratura with ease. 


David Fallis led the 30-member Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra in an urgent and compelling account of the score, relishing the young Mozart’s rapid changing of tempi.  Especially impressive was the menacing introductory music to the tomb scene of Act 1, where the period-instrument ensemble sounded astonishingly resonant and rich.  


To rescue an opera from undeserved oblivion is always a great achievement.  But Opera Atelier has revived Lucio Silla with such conviction and insight that we now hope that it will become a staple of its repertory and inspire other companies to rediscover the work in turn.  The revival is a magnificent success and the audience rewarded the company with an exceptionally long and thunderous standing ovation.                 


©Christopher Hoile


Note: This is a version of the review that will appear later this year in Opera News.

Photos: (from top) The finale of Lucio Silla; Krešimir Špicer as Lucio Silla; Peggy Kriha Dye (centre) as Cecilio with artists of the Atelier Ballet. ©2016 Bruce Zinger.