Lucio Silla: slaying the tyrant at the Elgin Theatre

Tonight I saw Opera Atelier’s Lucio Silla, an opera receiving its Canadian premiere production at the Elgin Theatre. I’ve wondered what was so special about this opera, having heard about previous Opera Atelier presentations of the work in Europe, and now I know.

In his introductory talk, Director Marshall Pynkoski spoke of Opera Seria, a form whose reputation can be a turn-off.  When the opera began he proceeded to show us how our assumptions about the form have been wrong: in effect a continuation of much we’ve seen from Opera Atelier. Their Alcina in 2014 was full of comedy, as was their Clemenza di Tito back in 2010, both of which are the same genre. But this shouldn’t be such a surprise, any more than the inclusion of funny scenes in a tragedy.    While Opera Atelier may be in their 30th anniversary season their historically informed approach still contains lessons.

As we’ve seen in other OA productions, recitative is not merely the filler between arias, even if singers might sometimes offer them in perfunctory fashion in recitals, as the dull preparation for their vocal fireworks. There are other ways to understand – and interpret—the aria and recitative discourse of Opera Seria. Recitative can be – indeed must be—the place where the story is advanced, and where the characters have depth and integrity, whatever they might show in their vocal solos. Because Pynkoski, music-director David Fallis, and choreographer Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg sought to invest every moment with dramatic depth, the arias have a different relationship to the recitative. At times the tension and pace are so intense that the arias feel less like a place for the singer to show off, but suddenly become a place for everyone to relax, to reflect.

The arias too have a few surprises. Sometimes we’re watching dancers function as supernumaries, or seeing action on another part of the stage while an aria gently goes on. And it doesn’t hurt that this is Mozart. For a sixteen year old he wrote amazing music, never less than engaging and sometimes astonishingly beautiful. It’s a huge thrill to discover this new work. While it’s always been there (at least since the 18th century) here’s a chance to see it staged. One may wonder: why isn’t this work done more often? What’s wrong with it that we haven’t seen it before now in Toronto (or New York for that matter)?  I think the answer in each case is the same one, the tyrannical monster that perhaps needs to be slain. Whether it might be misconceptions about opera seria, or the false belief that an early Mozart opera that’s never produced is deservedly obscure, in each case the assumptions deserve to be ended.

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Lucio Silla, with Gerard Gauci’s set & costumes (photo: Bruce Zinger)

Tafelmusik sounded wonderful as usual under David Fallis’ leadership, the Artists of Atelier Ballet were effective even though they did less than expected. I think Gerard Gauci’s set –and this time also including costumes as well—is his most magnificent creation for Opera Atelier that we’ve seen so far.

Gerard Gauci

Set designer Gerard Gauci

Yet it’s the five remarkable soloists in this production who made this happen, five who learned some amazing music even though they likely won’t sing it again –except if Opera Atelier revives the work—given that it’s not an opera that gets produced very often: which I have now decided is too bad. This is an opera worthy of being staged regularly.

Kresimir Spicer in the title role changed from the louder and more violent Silla we saw in his first appearance, becoming gentler both in his sound and deportment. In his final aria, where Silla struggles with his moral choices, Pynkoski has him walk behind the conductor, entering the same plane as the audience, including a lengthy unaccompanied cadenza ending perfectly in tune.

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Kresimir Spicer as Silla (foreground), Peggy Kriha Dye as Cecilio and Meghan Lindsay as Giunia (immediately behind), photo: Bruce Zinger

His antagonist was Meghan Lindsay as Giunia, standing firm against his demands. The physical interactions between Silla and Giunia likely are more modern than what was seen in Mozart’s time, as she boldly stands her ground against the harassment of the tyrant. Not only was the tension between the two electrifying, but as contemporary as current headlines.

Peggy Kriha Dye undertaking her first trouser role was wonderful to watch, spectacularly persuasive even though she’s not very tall. Her second-act aria to Giunia is one of the highlights of the evening, sung with magical commitment and pathos (get out your handkerchiefs… I went teary for the rest of the night), a moment suddenly putting me in mind of Fidelio even if this opera predates it by decades.

Mireille Asselin as Celia once again demonstrated that she can effortlessly shift the tone of a show, her every appearance a kind of comic relief, aided by perfect intonation. Inga Kalna’s Cinna was a perfect match, with her brilliant coloratura.

Lucio Silla continues at the Elgin Theatre until April 16th .

So in other words do go see Lucio Silla. You have nothing to lose except false assumptions.

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