Odyssey Opera's "Lucio Silla": Political Convention

Joanna Mongiardo & Katy Lindhart in "Lucio Silla"
(photo: Kathy Wittman)

As its companion piece to last week's production of Gluck's Ezio, in its “When In Rome” mini-festival, Odyssey Opera presented the equally rarely-heard opera Lucio Silla by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, with a libretto by Giovanni de Gamerra. The influence of Gluck and the prevailing opera seria of the time, with stock characters and their predictable situations, can easily be seen in this work by Mozart and de Gamerra.  The work is amazing given its composition by a sixteen-year-old. It wasn't even the boy's first opera (that would be his equally obscure Mitridate, re di Ponto), nor of course would it be his last. Its place in the context of opera seria is not merely historical, however, as it has many touches that hold the promise that the prodigious musical genius was ultimately to fulfill. The youthful composer respected the rules of the form, with its many conventions, political and otherwise, but even at his extraordinarily young age, there were glimpses of what was to come, submerged under a plot-heavy story that almost defies synopsis; the synopsis in the program for this production is over two pages long, but herewith is an attempt to synopsize that synopsis.

The setting is Rome, in 79 BC. Cecilio (countertenor Michael Maniaci), a senator returning from banishment by the dictator Lucio Silla (tenor Yeghishe Manucharyan), meets a patrician, Cinna (soprano Joanna Mongiardo) and asks him about his wife Giunia (soprano Katy Lindhart) only to hear she is being held prisoner by Silla. Meanwhile Silla tells his sister Celia (soprano Sara Heaton) and a tribune Aufidio (tenor Omar Najmi) of his love for Giunia, who refuses to reciprocate the dictator's love even when told Cecilio has died. Later, in a cemetery, she encounters Cecilio very much alive. Silla is urged by Aufidio to force her to marry him, to which he agrees. Cecilio, upon hearing this, urges Giunia to marry the dictator and murder him on their wedding night, but she refuses and urges Cecilio to surrender his sword and to trust in the gods. The two of them are led away to prison, where Giunia continues to spurn the dictator even if it means she will die at Cecilio's side. In the final scene in the great hall, Silla has a change of heart, renounces any claim to Giunia and swears to marry her to Cecilio, as well as marrying Cinna to Celia. He then removes his crown, abdicates and declares that Rome is to be free.

As was the Gluck opera, this was eloquently conducted by Gil Rose, Artistic and General Director of the company, leading the Odyssey Opera Orchestra of thirty. Additionally, this work included the Odyssey Opera Chorus of sixteen, led by Chorus Master Krishan Oberoi. As Directed by Isabel Milenski, it was dramatically rather static, with some strange choices (not once, not twice, but thrice characters upended chairs to show their anger), and the comically abrupt change of heart at the end brought hearty laughter from the audience. But in the end it was all about the music, which was extraordinarily demanding and gloriously sung. All of the cast were superb, especially Lindhart, with her lengthy solos presaging the composer's later work (in particular, the Queen of the Night's role in The Magic Flute).  The Scenic Design by Jian Jung was similar to his work on the Gluck opera (even repurposing some elements), and the simple Costume Design by Seth Bodie and clever Lighting Design by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew added some context.

Given the presentation of these two operas in the mini-festival of opera seria, there is a decided temptation, even an expectation, to compare and contrast them, but the fact remains that Gluck was composing at the height of his career and Mozart had only just begun. Each work had its memorable moments and extraordinary highlights, making for the festival a cornucopia of operatic riches.

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