Seeing Scipio Through Eyes of Mozart as a Teenager
by ALLAN KOZINN • April 18, 2012
Back in 2001, when the Gotham Chamber Opera was known as the Henry Street Chamber Opera, it introduced itself with the American stage premiere of a bona fide Mozart rarity, “Il Sogno di Scipione”: a work that the composer wrote when he was 15 but that apparently went unperformed until 1979. The staging, by Christopher Alden, was modern and quirky, and a universe removed from the vision of mythical antiquity that Mozart imagined. But it was a hit, and the company quickly found its footing as a purveyor of unusual works, old and new.
To celebrate its 10th anniversary, counting from when it changed its name, the company has revived this 11-year-old production at the Gerald Lynch Theater at John Jay College. And though aspects of Mr. Alden’s staging can be irritating (is an extended scene in which a character shines a floor lamp in the audience’s eyes absolutely necessary?), it is worth catching for the considerable firepower in Mozart’s score.
The opera, with a libretto by Metastasio, is based on Cicero’s tale of the Roman general Scipio Aemilianus, who dreamed he was transported to the heavens. There the goddesses Fortuna (Fortune) and Constanza (Constancy) forced him to choose which of them he would be devoted to, and the spirits of his warrior grandfather, Publio, and father, Emilio, give him a hint of his destiny.
Mr. Alden reshapes this as a comedy by making Fortuna a costume-mad harpy (she appears as a cowgirl, a dominatrix and a businesswoman), Constanza a bookish yoga practitioner and Scipione lethargic and unwilling before he is transformed by his choice. Publio and Emilio, shattered old soldiers, are the production’s overstated dose of sobriety.
The youthful Mozart is not always edifying listening, but he was in top form here. Every role is packed with spectacularly florid showpieces, and one of Constanza’s arias, “Biancheggia in mar lo scoglio,” has elements that Mozart returned to and developed more fully in his writing for the Queen of the Night in “The Magic Flute.”
Heard on Monday evening, the production benefited from a generally strong cast, with Susannah Biller as a vocally and dramatically volatile Fortuna and Marie-Ève Munger as a graceful, virtuosic Constanza. Arthur Espiritu, as Publio, and Chad A. Johnson, as Emilio, sang with power and clarity, and Rachel Willis-Sorensen took an amusing star turn as Licenza in the work’s unrelated postlude, a paean to the opera’s patrons.
Nicholas Simpson took over the title role at the last minute from Michele Angelini, who was ill, and though he was not quite up to Mozart’s ornate writing, Mr. Simpson sang the role valiantly. And Neal Goren, the company’s founding artistic director, drew a tight, comfortably paced performance from the fine orchestra.