Turning Young Mozart into Enthralling Music Theater

Photo by Richard Termine

The idea of staging an opera written by a sixteen year old is…quaint at best. Discovering that the sixteen year old in question was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is at once intriguing and cringe-inducing. I’m not one for indulging in the genius fetish, and I certainly do not believe that just because Mozart, or for that matter any of the German giants of the canon, wrote it then it must be good, but having missed Gotham Chamber Opera’s premiere of Nico Muhly’s Dark Sisters in November, I felt obliged to see their revival of Mozart’s Il Sogno di Scipione. Sometimes an obligation is a fabulous thing.

Photo by Richard TermineIl Sogno di Scipione has the potential to be a very boring opera. It is essentially a pastiche of Mozart’s concert arias with the plot being more of a suggestion than a must, but Christopher Alden’s humorous and daring production makes this work as a piece of theater. Each of the six singers is given some challenge beyond the litany of da capo arias whether it be singing on crutches with one leg, singing while changing into a countless number of risque outfits, or singing hunched over in a wheel chair. Rather than distracting from the singing, these gimmicks added to each character and to Alden’s playful concept.

The six-member ensemble cast presented a master class in eloquent and virtuosic singing, tackling the roles with an alluringly ideal mixture of precision and abandon. Michele Angelini sang Scipione’s heroic and florid music with a fabulously complete voice. His high notes, C and above, rang out with a dark, burnished color. Quite a change from the nasality most high tenors rely on, sacrificing color. Susanna Biller as La Fortuna almost stole the show from Angelini with her inhuman ease in every register of her voice, effortless agility, and sassy personality. As her rival, La Costanza, Marie-Ève Munger sang with a lighter timbre and less size than Biller, but with equal amounts of dignified poise and quirky individuality. Arthur Espiritu as Scipione’s ancestor Publio could be a little muddy in the middle and strained and nasal in the passagio, but his extreme top, sung with one leg and on crutches, was magnificent. As Scipione’s father Emilio, the third tenor Chad A. Johnson had to sing in the most difficult position: slumped over in a wheelchair, his torso bent and his neck leaning sideways. Not the most ideal singing position, and one can only hope that Johnson’s underpowered projection and raspy vocal quality were the result of this cruel staging.

Although she only sang one aria at the end, Rachel Wills-Sørensen stole the show, bursting through the brown paper walls of Scipione’s bedroom and rocking out to Mozart’s undeniable rhythmic energy. To Mozart purists, this production of Mozart’s Il Sogno di Scipione was probably a sacrilege, but for the rest of us who want to experience the music as much as we want to appreciate it, it was 100 minutes of enthralling music theater.

Il Sogno di Scipione runs until April 21, 2012. More information: www.gothamchamberopera.org

Photos by Richard Termine