Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Lucio Silla
La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels - 2017
Antonello Manacorda, Tobias Kratzer, Jeremy Ovenden, Lenneke Ruiten, Anna Bonitatibus, Simona Šaturová, Llse Eerens, Carlo Allemano
ARTE Concert - 9 November 2017
I'm all in favour of a bit of imaginative reinterpretation when it comes to Mozart's early opera serias. There are musical pleasures and much to admire in juvenile works like Lucio Silla, but without some creative direction the plots can be more than a little hard to digest. There's not a great deal in the way of psychological insight into human behaviour in Lucio Silla other than generalisations about the exercise of power and the strength of true love. There's little dramatic action and the sentiments and situations are drawn out to tortuous length in repetitive da capo arias. As my most recent experience of Lucio Silla at the 2017 Buxton Festival confirmed, it can be tough going if there's not a bit of thought put into making it relevant, interesting and engaging.
If it's radical adventurous reinterpretation and modernisation you are looking for, La Monnaie in Brussels is the place that is likely to not only provide it but push it to its limits and often succeed in revitalising works in the most unlikely of ways. Tobias Kratzer's production - modern inevitably - attempts to put the work in a context that we might be more familiar with than the historical events in Rome in 82 BC, because evidently, Lucio Silla, composed by a 16 year old Mozart in 1772 is much more than a history lesson; it has wider and usually somewhat more generalised points to make about the nature of power, love and conscience. Tobias Kratzer's job is to make that feel a bit more real and immediate.
There's a short video sequence that plays out during the overture, a montage of jump cuts that blend images of Kennedy, Putin, Trump and Kim Jun-Il mixed in with nightmarish and seemingly random elements that are going to play a larger role in the La Monnaie production - oysters, knives, blood, security cameras and cross-dressing dolls. Essentially, the impression it gives is one of power, indulgence and violence, and that certainly characterises the lifestyle of Lucius Cornelius Sulla, or Lucio Silla, or whichever modern face you want to put on him. Silla's petulant warning that "Whoever refuses to love me should fear me" certainly has a sinister resonance with some of those figures mentioned above.
The set itself exerts a suitably imposing presence. In the opening scene, Cecilio, the exiled Roman Senator, approaches a set of security gates patrolled by a guard dog protecting the grounds of Lucio Silla's residence. The majority of the subsequent drama - mainly between Silla and Giunia who the dictator has been trying to woo by letting her believe that Cecilio is dead - takes place within the elegantly fitted rooms of this mansion. The stage rotates to present different views of rooms, with plenty of visual variety to make up for the lack of drama. The graveyard where Cecilio and Giunia meet is at the back of the house, presenting another sinister dimension to the mood of the proceedings.
I say 'lack of drama' and that at least is usually the case with Lucio Silla. Not much happens apart from confrontations and declarations that never really come to anything, either on the part of Giunia and Cecilio's threats, or between Cinna and Celia whose loyalty to Silla conflicts with their own interests/love. Celia indeed has a strange role in this production, playing with dolls and a doll house, and she seems to have a rather disturbing idea of happy families. It's not always clear what the purpose of some of the ideas are, but clearly Kratzer wants to make sure that realise that all these feelings come from a very real place. Using security camera footage depicting physical abuse and even rape, the production really gets to the true nature of Silla's attempts to what is usually described rather more circumspectly as 'win' Giunia. The reality is a lot uglier than this phrase suggests.
None of this matters if you can't put on a musical performance that is just as engaging and invigorating, that puts a real human experience behind the rather manufactured drama. La Monnaie's cast fortunately are exceptionally good at keeping up with the driving rhythmic intensity of Antonello Manacorda's musical direction. More than anything you can put into modernising the production or even in any depth that you can seek to bring out of Mozart's musical score, it's conviction in the dramatic and the singing performances that count here. In opera seria, the sentiments around love are almost life or death matters and you really feel that here.
There are no opera seria mannerisms in the singing here, each of the performers are fully involved in the roles, projecting the challenging arias (and challenge of dramatic conviction) with extraordinary intensity. This is a production that is centered on Giunia and so particularly reliant on Lenneke Ruiten's performance to give a sense of something really meaningful being at stake. It's an outstanding performance, Ruiten utterly committed and engaging, impressively navigating the fiendish coloratura in arias like 'Ah se il crudel periglio'. Her intensity is matched however in Jeremy Ovenden's Lucio Silla, in Anna Bonitatibus's Cecilio and in Simona Šaturová's Cinna.
As much as the director tries to make this relatable in a modern-day context there is one aspect of human behaviour from ancient Roman times that proves impossible to 'translate'. It may be true that Lucius Cornelius Sulla had a crisis of conscience, regretted his actions and stepped down from power for the greater good, but it's hard to imagine Trump or any other modern politician doing the decent thing in the present day. If La Monnaie production does no more than gives pause to consider the implications of what that says about us as a civilised society today, then it's still made a significant point.