The Writing is on the Wall: “Lucio Silla” at Theater an der Wien

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[Curtain Call for “Lucio Silla” at Theater an der Wien, April 27th, 2016: Chiara Skerath (Cinna), Alessandro Liberatore (Silla), Laurence Equilbey (baton and fabulous white-shirted outfit), Olga Pudova (Giunia), Franco Fagioli (Cecilio), Ilse Eerens (Celia), The Arnold Schönberg Choir, Insula Orchestra.]

My night with “that other very early Mozart seria” (now that I am very familiar with the first) was an interesting listening experience since it puts many later (and some earlier) Mozart puzzle pieces into place.

A standout feature of the evening was the company, since I had the pleasure of sharing it with both thadieu and dehggial. Every performance – even a good one like this – is so much better when you get to spend the hours prior at a Kaffeehaus ranting about cis-casting and unpacking your favorite bits of opera in both discourse and gossip. Which, at times, is the same. Thank you, fellow White Shirts!

The evening was announced as a concert performance, though it did come half-staged, which amounted to a lot of moving around lettered partitions and hiding behind them, and broody scribbling and erasing on them. It is the thing that can be done in short order and adapted to nearly any podium on tour. The simple fact that they tried to do something with it is commendable (Direction: Rita Cosentino). I could have done without it, but it allowed the singers a bit more of dramatic impetus, and that worked well.

Plot-wise, “Silla” is not as gripping as “Mitridate” (well, at least as *that* “Mitridate”) – the Evil Emperor (sad to report: no laser swords in sight) stalks Giunia, whose father he had killed. Giunia hates him with so much passion (Konstanze, Konstanze…) that one begins to pity her actual love interest, poor exiled Cecilio, who skulks and sulks around a Roman tomb like a moody goth teenager. His friend, Cinna Underwood, is pulling the strings behind the scenes: most of the evening, he is trying to find someone to murder Silla – yet Silla’s sister Celia, who just wants everyone to get along, clearly has a thing for bad boys and gets to marry this one in the end, when Silla renounces his tyrant ways, respects Giunia’s restraining order, end the banishments and pardons everyone.

That’s it. That’s three delicious hours of Mozart.

The Arnold Schönberg Choir – yes, today we will start with the choir, just as they marched up first in a Tiller Girls formation while keeping their faces straight, no small feat – has a sound that could make you listen to actual Schönberg as a lullaby: not out of sweetness, but out of purity. Gluck sent his regards on Wednesday!

The Insula Orchestra under Laurence Equilbey also makes a stand. From the first bars, the brass grabs you, as do modeled accents in the higher strings. The sound was just a bit gruff – like fine sand pearling through your fingers – in an old-school Early Music way,  yet this Mozart, despite a lot of vertical structure, was not an Early Music take. It had very much the veneer of a later orchestra, with a polished edge that echoed also in the modern bows of the strings.

The first aria of the night went to the trouser role, Chiara Skerath as Cinna in a dark suit, a trench coat and a side part: Of all the Sillas in all the world, she walked into mine.

Skerath has an even voice that opens easily, with a very top that is slightly unreal in piercing clarity (she has really good sinus projection): some more substance around the upper middle, a round sound throughout with a good handle on her coloratura (and “Vieni ov’amor t’invita
” sets right away a high technical bar for the opera, and for this evening). The color is more lyrical, but carries really well.

Cecilio’s following scene starts with  an accompagnato – and the accompagnati were perhaps my favorite bit of the evening, and perhaps they were also the favorite bits of the orchestra – that sounds very much like Susanna’s “Giunse afin il momento” (the situation is the same: awaiting their lover).

This was my first live experience of Franco Fagioli (Cecilio). My first thought still was “Oh Holy Cecilia!”, even though his color is  little lighter still. But it’s the same dramatic flutter, the same  stylistic use of a gently placed-upon-a-cushion sfumato. Fagioli sounded a little tight at the very beginning, but warmed up in no time. He also has fabulous body tension and moved around those partitions like a panther.

His sound is complex, without appearing to be made (save for some strain in the lowest notes but hey, at least he *has* them): while flamboyant in tone, he drew immediately much more attention to what he can do with his tone: nicely shaded descrescendi, good piano control, soft-scaled downward portamenti, a hint of a messa di voce – a lot more piano culture than flashy power moves. On his first larger coloratura run, my notes read again “Oh Santa Cecilia!” with the addendum of “Not just a panther. A peacock, too.”

His very top sounds curiously as if from afar, turned inward, but he’s got spunk. At the end of “Il tenero momento”, I muttered “I llllike him!” to myself, in very much the inflection Lilo uses in “Lilo and Stitch” when everyone wants her to focus on someone else, but she wants Stitch.
If I had to compare Cencic, as herd a week prior, to Fagioli, I would say that Cencic’s voice is dramatic, but Fagioli’s voice is drama. Cencic tells a story through vocal acting, Fagioli sometimes just does “Monochrome bleu”, which can also work.

Alessandro Liberatore  (Silla) has the biggest voice of the evening, with a well-resonating lower range and ringing notes through the top that made me think of an Idomeneo (or five). His voice came not across as perfectly round, a bit more rough-hewn due to its sheer size, but likewise with very good projection: ruggedly handsome in a pleasant way instead of just smooth. I enjoyed listening to him actually sculpting his words out of their letters (e.g. in “Il desio di vendetta”).

Ilse Eerens’ Celia sounded to me like a lyric coloratura with a round, brilliant top – a very clear, but still somewhat warm quality, packed with the same qualities most of the cast showed this evening: roundness, even flow of tone, and immediate responsiveness. Eerens sounds younger than she is; I would have pegged her for a very lyrical Blonde or a very light-colored Ilia, and only later read that she has done Pamina already.
She also sports a pixie-cut that gave me Dawn-Upshaw-sends-her-best-to-Angela-Denoke feelings, and – since she was the only person in a short skirt onstage – she also has very nice legs, plus the costuming choice of putting her in red leather coat? Nice. (It would also look nice on Angela Denoke (re: vibes).

The orchestra the really opens a can for Giunia’s first aria, “
Dalla sponda tenebrosa”. The scene is off to a Fiordiligi start, and Olga Pudova shows off a round, technically sound tone: a little cooler in color, with a nice fullness in the upper middle range. Her top range, where she went for a messa di voce on the first longer “sposo” is well-controlled, and you think “it’d better” when the coloratura sets in and your brain basically goes, “Ah, this is where Konstanze got her drive.” Konstanze does not necessarily put smooth mezzo piano control quite as mercilessly on display as Giunia does, but Pudova excels at it.

I kept returning to the accompagnati – Cecilio gets an ombra scene next that is nothing but an accompagnato, and Insula Orchestra was marvelous in the phrase build-ups, the coloring with the brass, and with the strings ‘con sordine’ (if they weren’t, they did a very good job of making me believe in it regardless). I also kept liking Fagioli, and not in a Facebook way.

The first Giunia/Cecilio duet that closes the First Act (“D’Elisio in sen m’attendi
”) had his and Pudova’s voice melt into each other – my notes on the coloratura boil down to “Hot damn!” – although in between the denser, brilliant veneer from the pit and Pudova’s more effortlessy carrying tone, Fagioli got a bit “mantised” (part of it is the reduction of overtones in falsetto voices, which due to a technical necessity lead to less carrying, not matter how well one projects. It is not really an issue in earlier repertory, but with  Mozartean orchestration and more duets/ensembles, one cannot help but notice).

The atmosphere in the intermission was one of peaceful co-existence: the gays clearly had come for Fagioli, the dykes – we spotted a few more – had shown up for Equilbey’s outfits and the trouser role. And everyone was there for the Mozart.

The Second Act brings another lengthy accompagnato for Cecilio (“Al fiero suon de’ minacciosi accenti”) and Fagioli gets to shine with his richly colored top register during the following “Quest’improvviso tremito
”. Giunia’s answering “Vanne. T’affretta.
”, where she makes it clear that she will not pull a Lucia and kill Silla in bed after marrying him, was  stolen once more by a line of violin accents, but then Giunia’s “Ah se il crudel periglio
”  garnered the most lasting applause of the evening. You sing your coloratura very nicely, Konstanze, I wrote. It was “Ach, ich liebte Traurigkeit ward mir zu Marter aller Arten” all wrapped up in one. Yet there were more likenesses: Silla’s “D’ogni pietà mi spoglio
” is not just in words close to Mitridate’s “Già di pietà mi spoglio”. And Celia’s ode to flowers in “Quando sugl’ arsi campi” takes a page (but no shirt) from Sifare’s “Soffre il mio cor con pace”.

Before that number, Celia and Giunia share a recitative, and even though Mozart seria does generally not pass the Bechdel test, as soon as two women are talking to each other, it still sounds as if something is sull’aria.

The Second Act end with a trio, between a supposedly doomed Cecilio and Giunia, and a frothing Silla, and it was another highlight, only to get topped in Act Three by Giunia’s farewell aria, “Fra i pensier più funesti di morte” because those flutes. And Pudova meeting the silvery, dancing accent of those flutes with royal aplomb… what a combination.
To me, though, the previous Cecilio aria – because everyone gets their farewell aria, sometimes more than once – took the cake. “Pupille amate” is a gently beating heart of an aria, made up more of noble style and line than sheer fireworks, and the way Fagioli took it on was out of this world. If time stopped at any point during the evening? It was here.

Much warm applause in the end, and a cast that clearly had a different quality to their interactions than your regular concert performance line-up.

24 thoughts on “The Writing is on the Wall: “Lucio Silla” at Theater an der Wien”

  1. many thanks for the really lovely company! it was great fun. to say i didn’t hear almost any of the things you described here is an understatement.. I guess I didn’t really know “all of early Mozart” after 3 months of intensive Mitridate as I have thought 🙂 (you know they say the same about math+stats: you take 1 class you think you know everything, you take 5 then you realize you know nothing..). The lone thing i remember was “the orchestra didn’t sound like Haïm’s! which is really the wrong mindset to come in with… I partially recovered at 1/2 time but still has “issues” with hearing the orchestra.. and now after reading your description (and my experience with the baroque thingy here in London) i sort out more confusion: that i lumped “early mozart” in with “baroque” and was somehow “expecting” Händel-like orchestration in head. Lesson gathered: Mozart is really different! I think if i had walked in to an unknown Händel’s opera instead of Mozart i’d have reacted differently :-).

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    1. My Mozart knowledge: 5 statistic classes, really. I can only describe what reminds me of what… And that was greatly enhanced by being able to compare it to your hearing experience!

      But fact is that you can play Mozart with a lot more of an Early Music approach (just think of Harnoncourt!!). Equilbey/Insula sounded to me more about what was new at Mozart’s point, or even what we know about lines of development now. It made me think more about orchestra coloring than rhetorics and rhythm.

      > >

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  2. very good hanging out again and longer this time 🙂 a well rounded opera night.

    try to see a Fagioli recital, all the good stuff is there with none of the things he’s less good at. The warmth, gentleness, elegance, whathaveyou is way seductive and you get 1 1/2 to 2 hours of it. Plus he’s likely to finish with a flamenco florish 😉

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    1. Flamenco? Are we sure he is not Bartoli after all? I will watch out for solo appearances – now if we had Wigmore Hall, I might be luckier in that regsrd…!

      >

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        1. No other place on earth has anything comparable to WH. There have to be smaller venues here, but I have yet to come across the concert hall equivalent of cozy, exquisite TADW. (Vienna is so much about grandeur that the general spirit often seems rather musikvereinish. Whihc is perfectly lovely, of course, but it is HUGE)

          >

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          1. did i mention when i went once for an interview there i knew more about wigmore hall and its line up/sched while having near zero knowledge of the school? 😀

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    1. by genre, it would be the complete opposite, but musically, at least Konstanze is very close. None of the others, really, but Konstanze, yes.

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      1. I’m really confused about this opera, you know? It’s like it’s a silly comedy only not really because of Konstanze who’s got so much stuff going on just below the surface it’s derailing the wh0le thing (btw, it’s got the other Mozart overture I really like).

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        1. it’s even more confusing if you look at the first Konstanze, Caterina Cavalieri (who was not Italian, but very much Austrian) – she was specifically a prima donna for the Singspiel genre. Not the seria. Even if her arias scream “Once I wrote for Giunia, too!”
          My best guess is that in putting the Singspiel from the barracks onto the court stage, Joe II. bascially left composers without a mainstream idiom (singspiel was always rather on the margins), so they had to make do with some of the off-stuff and some seria-samplers until it found its footing.
          Pedrillo’s “Frisch zum Kampfe” is buffa on steroids, Blonde’s first one is also not really available to just any soubretta, and Belmonte is really caught in the middle – the Baumeister aria still has leftover bits of the seria style, but it’s all very empfindsam already and in that mix-up, probably even harder than Tamino when it comes to casting with current voice types (there is a reason why the third aria gets kicked so much, and not just because nobody knows to read it stylistically).

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            1. *snort*

              yes, if you put it that way!

              (although I’ve heard you’re not allowed to make jokes about Turkish turkeys these days…)

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            2. yes, it’s already one of my phone alarms. I can set it every two hours for baclava time. Sacrifice on the altar of wit.

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        1. Firodiligi is actually linked to Adriana Ferrarese del Bene, for whom the part was conceived and who was an Italian singing Italian repertory and came from seria education (and who presumably had a good bottom register and an agile top), so Fiordiligi – where seria style is also being parodied in “Come scoglio”, down to the text – makes more sense than Konstanze: it fits a singer and their style, and the genre (or genre parody), I would say.

          But other than that, perhaps Mozart really had a thing for throwing coloratura at sopranos for the heck of it every now and then?

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