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In Review > North America

Lucio Silla

CHICAGO
Chicago Opera Theater
9/30/15

CHICAGO OPERA THEATER SCORED an intriguing season opener on September 30 with Lucio Silla, Mozart’s rarely produced opera seria, written when the composer was all of sixteen, with libretto by Giovanni de Gamerra. After its Milanese premiere in 1772 this fascinating piece, which relates the tale of Roman dictator Lucius Sulla and his lust for his enemy’s daughter Giunia, has only recently begun to enjoy wider currency. COT’s mounting was a Windy City first.

The production was staged and designed by COT general director Andreas Mitisek with his usual creativity and nods toward contemporary consciousness. The space was dominated by a huge, hammered metallic wall divided into segments by rivets, and bearing the emblem “Sic Semper Tyrannis.” A series of similarly constructed platforms downstage created a multilevel playing space, and when this massive edifice intermittently parted into segments the characters, all in modern dress, were silhouetted above by Andrew Meyers's stunning lighting. The black-clad chorus was subtly choreographed in a robotic manner. Lucio Cinna (a bravura travestiperformance by soprano Ava Pine, whose masculine swagger matched the character’s vocal pyrotechnics perfectly) was envisioned as a morally bereft predator who controlled Silla’s sister Celia through sexual dominance. (Hell, I would have followed “him” home.)

It all worked until the dénouement. A common feature of opera seria is resolution of universal order; whatever chaos ensues is generally addressed by some bit of deus ex machina and all the stars line up. Mitisek elected to address matters by having Silla suddenly pounce upon Celia and stab her to death (good thing she had no more to sing) then fearfully deliver his abdication under the smirking glare of Cinna, who we assume will be yet another despot of Rome. One assumes a resonation to the ubiquitous corruption of political power was intended; but while that message is still relevant, the choice played poorly here and was glaringly dissonant to the optimistic chorus that follows. Pushing conventional envelopes is often revealing, but this served neither music nor drama effectively. 

There was a fine cast of young singers, each enjoying memorable moments. Ryan MacPherson brought an impressive amalgam of lyricism and heroic heft to Silla, and deserves special kudos for maintaining pure, attractive tone even while trembling his way through Silla’s final clemency as staged here. Soprano Maeve Höglund revealed a wealth of dynamic control and a formidable florid technique as the fiery Giunia. As her husband Cecilio, soprano Christine Arand delivered another convincingly masculine impersonation (she even almost fooled you while wearing a wife-beater tank top, if you didn’t look hard) , and coursed through the difficult display writing with remarkable assurance. Valerie Vinzant delivered a meltingly beautiful Celia.

The opera was trimmed to a comfortable two and one half hours (Aufidio, a minor role, was eliminated altogether) and received a spirited reading by conductor Francesco Milioto. The excellent Apollo chorus could not have been bettered, and their performance pointedly reflected the assemblage’s press description “men and women of all ages, races, creeds and occupations brought together by their love of singing”. A few quibbles aside, it was a treat to welcome Lucio Silla to Chicago, and the enthusiastic audience was obviously glad that he finally made the trip. —Mark Thomas Ketterson

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