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MOZART: Lucio Silla

DVD Button Petibon, Kalna, Moreno, Santafé; Streit, Tarver; Chorus and Orchestra of Teatro Real, Madrid, Bolton. Production: Guth. BelAir Classiques BAC 150 (2), 180 mins., subtitles

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The Wallflowers: Streit and Petibon in Madrid
© Javier Del Real
Recordings Lucio Silla Cover 1218
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OPERA SERIA is a gold mine for stage directors. While opera buffa is virtually foolproof, with ample action already baked in, its serious counterpart from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries typically offers a theatrical desert of solo arias. What director today could resist that blank canvas, a void crying out to be filled? Claus Guth’s staging of Mozart’s youthful Lucio Silla, introduced at the Theater an der Wien earlier this century, is ablaze with action in this 2017 revival at Madrid’s Teatro Real. The musical energy is high as well, thanks to a terrific cast and the intelligent brio of conductor Ivor Bolton.

Guth follows in the footsteps of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, who discovered, decades ago, that a solo aria (the main ingredient in opera seria) can be disguised or reinvented to look like an ensemble piece. Ponnelle habitually placed other cast members onstage to overhear, stalk or provoke the character who’s singing, and he made them react to the aria with mute sympathy, disdain or outrage. A solo aria could become—at least visually—an action scene.

The director’s aims here are supported by Christian Schmidt’s costumes, which the characters regularly remove, trade or don again, and his fluid, drab-industrial sets, which become damaged, sullied and stained by characters’ desperate antics. Fires are lit, weapons are brandished and stage-blood flows. Tenor Kurt Streit, as Lucio Silla, goes bare-chested with menace, and trousered soprano Inga Kalna, as Lucio Cinna, does a fine Fred Astaire imitation, turning a solo aria into a pas-de-deux with mannequin. 

And yet the effect is moving. Mozart’s preternaturally masterful slow music, saturated with grief, warmth or inner conflict, is at least as effective as the frequent chest-thumping allegros vowing revenge or resistance. The most decisive factor here, aside from Bolton’s sympathetic conducting, is the presence of soprano Patricia Petibon in the ornate, tormented role of Giunia. 

In the heat of the dramatic exertions, Petibon’s several bravura arias may not have all the polish of some predecessors, such as Auger or Gruberova, on complete recordings, or Damrau or Dessay, in isolated excerpts. But Petibon, one of those rare, indispensable figures who epitomize sung drama, can find emotional life and layering in an ornate vocal pattern of scales, divisions and leaps up to D. Visually, with her animated physicality and fiery gaze, she provides the focus in a production that might otherwise have seemed too busy.

Both of the original castrato roles go to women rather than male altos or countertenors. Silvia Tro Santafé shows great musical and dramatic empathy as Cecilio, and Kalna’s assertive, bravura Cinna is compelling. In the title role, Streit sings almost generically amid the vivid gymnastics, but in calmer moments he manages to evoke a bully’s rage and cowardice. Soprano María José Moreno and tenor Kenneth Tarver are brilliant in the brief roles of Celia and Aufidio. —David J. Baker



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