Room for improvement
by DeCaffarrelli • April 13, 2012
It’s hard to think of a rare work by a great composer more tailor-made for a twenty-first century reexamination than Mozart’s Il Sogno di Scipione, currently being revived by Gotham Chamber Opera at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College near Lincoln Center. Along with his twin brother David (whose new production of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera premieres this fall at the Met), Peter Sellars and Robert Wilson, Sogno’s director Christopher Alden is one of America’s few successful proponents of the director-driven, concept-oriented regietheater school of opera production that’s become nearly the rule in many European houses. However, it is still warily viewed here in the US despite variously successful attempts to popularize it by Pamela Rosenberg in San Francisco and, in a more cautious way, by Peter Gelb at the Met.
Since many regie productions seek to create on stage a non-linear, irrational world, what could be more appropriate than this rarely performed azione teatrale by the fifteen-year-old Wolfgang? Based on Cicero and set to a then nearly forty-year-old libretto by the inescapable Pietro Metastasio, Il Sogno di Scipione depicts literally that: “Scipio’s Dream” during which mythical figures and dead relatives visit the sleeping Roman consul hoping to influence his upcoming decisions of state. The leader dreams of visits by the goddesses Fortune and Constancy, along with a side trip to Elysium where both his biological father Aemilianus and his adoptive father Publius lecture him, yet all leave the final decision to Scipio—sort of a mythical-musical spin on your high school debate team.
Scholars disagree about whether Sogno was actually ever performed in Mozart’s lifetime. The piece was originally commissioned to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the ordination of the prince-archbishop of Salzburg, Count Siegmund von Schrattenbach, one of Mozart’s earliest and most important patrons. However, Schrattenbach died before the celebration and Hieronymous, Count Colloredo was elected to replace him. Sogno’s score shows that Mozart revised his original version changing the references from “Sigismondo” (Siegmund) to “Girolamo” (Hieronymous) in a new aria for Licenza that comes at the end of the piece (Gotham uses that later, longer version), but no contemporary evidence has been located testifying to an actual performance of the work although a celebratory cantata was performed in 1772 which may have been Sogno, although we know nothing of the soloists involved.
Il Sogno di Scipione (K. 126) was written fairly soon after Mozart’s astonishing success in Milan at the end of 1770 with Mitridate, Re di Ponto. However, truth be told, works that come immediately after Mitridate like Sogno and Ascanio in Alba fail to live up to that earlier work’s remarkably precocious musical invention and dramatic power, although La Betulia Liberata, an oratorio about Judith’s murder of Holofernes (also the subject of Charles Busch’s new play Judith of Bethulia) is a fascinating piece that might work quite well staged.
Demanding satisfying characterizations and involving drama from Sogno would be unfair. An allegorical serenata never meant to be staged and whose raison d’être was simply to honor its patron, it presumably would have more than met conventional expectations. However, despite its occasional musical felicities, it’s difficult not to find Sogno a limited, unsatisfying dramatic work, and there is little musical variety either. Except for an interesting chorus at the center of the piece, three sopranos and three tenors sing ten extraordinarily lengthy and difficult arias which stray little from the baroque norm of the da capo form (ABA), although Mozart’s are dal segno arias where the return to the A section is not a strict, nor a complete repeat.
One of the most fascinating features of the Gotham performance was the inventive use of ornamentation in the repeats of what are some of the most dizzyingly florid, ferociously high arias Mozart ever composed. In many years of listening to his early vocal works, I’ve rarely heard ornamentation added (beyond cadenzas), and here it worked very well in spicing up the repetition as well as evoking the music’s (and libretto’s) debt to the earlier baroque era, despite coming nearly ten years after the “reform” of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice.
In the late 1970s Sogno had its probable world premiere during the annual January Salzburg Mozart Week which during those years was linked to Leopold Hager’s project to record all the early Mozart dramatic works. Those revelatory recordings most of which ended up on the Philips Complete Mozart edition released in 1991 for the bicentenary of Mozart’s death remain best remembered by me for superb portrayals by the great Arleen Augér.
I’m particularly fond her Elisa in Il Re Pastore, but it has never been issued on CD. However, Augér didn’t appear in Sogno: Peter Schreier’s excessively Teutonic Scipione is instead visited by the Fortuna of Edita Gruberova and Costanza of Lucia Popp, the latter’s only appearance in the Hager series.
Hager’s conducting of Sogno can seem a bit square sometimes, but the singing particularly by the ladies (Edith Mathis is Licenza) is superb. A live recording released on Astrée from 2000 features livelier conducting (and the superb Freiburger Barockorchester on original instruments), but the singing is less impressive overall, except for Charles Workman’s remarkably suave and persuasive Publio. Workman also sang that role at what was probably Sogno’s US premiere at the 1992 Mostly Mozart Festival during Lincoln Center’s ambitious project to perform every single note written by Mozart. That performance (which I’ve heard on a pirate recording) also features the Fortuna of Renée Fleming, a performance which likely led to the most exposure Sogno has ever had. On her 1995 all-Mozart CD "Visions of Love" conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras, Fleming sings Fortuna’s first aria, famously interpolating a high G. Unfortunately both complete recordings of Sogno are out of print (but can be hunted down), as is the 2006 Salzburg Festival DVD (featuring a cast of virtual unknowns).
Gotham Chamber Opera ambitiously inaugurated its first season with the US stage premiere of Il Sogno di Scipione, in 2001, so this special revival commemorates its 10th Anniversary season by returning to that beginning. Again conducted (ably if not especially elegantly) by its music director Neal Goren and designed by Andrew Cavanaugh Holland, Fabio Toblini and Allan Hahn, this production features six young singers active throughout the US and Europe in small houses or as members of young artist programs. Few will be familiar to even the most intrepid opera-goers, yet that may change based on Wednesday’s gala opening.
Given Mozart’s outrageous demands on all the singers, it was surprising that, by and large, the tenors outshone the sopranos. Dominating the evening both vocally and dramatically was the “strapping” Michele Angelini in the title role. Never having seen the work staged, I was surprised since Scipione always seems a cipher—passively harangued by his “visitors.” Instead, Angelini’s intensely conflicted responses throughout kept the focus on Scipione in a way I wouldn’t have imagined. His flamboyantly virtuosic singing of the opening aria got the show off to such a brilliant start that there was an unfortunate lull until the entrance of the second tenor, Arthur Espiritu who as Publio was vocally nearly Angelini’s equal, particularly in his first aria “Se vuoi che te raccolgano,” one of the score’s high points. Unfortunately, Chad A. Johnson as Emilio failed to reach the high level of his fellow tenors, although he may have been distracted by the egregiously sophomoric stage business during his aria.
Susannah Biller and Marie-Ève Munger as Fortuna and Costanza valiantly and sometimes successfully struggled with the Queen-of-the-Night-like demands of their roles, yet their too-similar timbres and often pinched or piercing high notes made their showpiece arias (two each) somewhat less than the intended tours de force. Munger did reveal an appealing, interestingly grainy quality at times (particularly in the middle of her voice) which suggested that she might be more appealing in music less stratospheric. Like Johnson, Rachel Willis-Sørensen as Licenza was sabotaged by some of Alden’s worst conceits, but she revealed a lush and smoky soprano that had to work a bit too hard in the florid writing but left one wanting to hear her again in more suitable music.
And what of Christopher Alden’s regie? Having disliked his 2005 Gotham production of Handel’s Arianna in Creta so much that I nearly walked out at intermission, I was pleasantly surprised by Sogno. With the exception of the leaden “business” that ruined with the scenes with Emilio and Licenza (the latter unfortunately ending the evening with a thud), Alden propelled his cast into unusually intense performances, finding compelling action to enliven the long arias (lasting six to nine minutes each).
Since I have seen many productions of 18th century opera, my bête noire has become directors who don’t seem to trust the music and the singer to hold the stage; they bring on unnecessary extra characters and/or give the singer lots of “stuff” to do, when “simply” singing the music with purpose and intensity would suffice. Mercifully, in Costanza’s magnificent “Biancheggia in mar lo scoglio” (a simile aria like Fiordiligi’s “Come scoglio”) where she convinces Scipione to align with her rather than with Fortuna, Alden encouraged Munger to make it one of the dramatic highpoints by “just” singing it as Scipione intently moved toward her. On the other hand, Fortuna’s aria which preceded it was turned into a painfully unfunny burlesque routine about making martinis and serving them to the chorus.
Occasionally I wished Alden had gone farther—it seemed as if he was torn between creating his own scenario and wanting to be (relatively) true to the libretto. The first half hour or so (of the 110-minute, intermission-less) was stunning: Scipione wakes up in a spare and door-less room in bed with two beautiful (and very different) women he seems to not know (or at least remember). The dream becomes then an awkward nightmare of the morning-after a hook-up gone bad, a twenty-first century swinger No Exit. Unfortunately the entrances of the chorus through the window as a horde of homeless and of Publio from the closet dressed as a WWI one-legged veteran perhaps inevitably set the production off in another direction that, while often involving and entertaining, somehow never completely added up.
Despite reservations, this Sogno presents a splendid opportunity to see of one Mozart’s rarest works in a lively production which doesn’t condescend to the difficulties of the work and makes an honorable stab at its vocal demands while at the same time celebrating a milestone for a company that continues to consistently do fine work while other local groups stumble and grope to find their footing.
Photo: Richard Termine.