In many ways Vienna’s Theater an der Wien has a more illustrious history than the more prestigious Wiener Staatsoper just up the street. Built by Mozart’s librettist Emanuel Schickaneder in 1801, it not only staged the première of Beethoven’s Fidelio, but provided lodging to the irascible composer for over a year as well. It also saw the premières of that most Viennese of New Year’s bonbons Die Fledermaus then later, Lehar’s beguiling Die Lustige Witwe. Eclectic and adventurous repertoire programming has always been a feature of this jewel of an opera house and that continues today: the 2016-17 seasons includes new productions of Anno Schreir’s Hamlet and Salieri’s Falstaff.

Laurence Equilbey © J. Jocif
Laurence Equilbey
© J. Jocif

In such a context, Mozart’s adolescent opera seria Lucio Silla doesn’t seem like anything out of the ordinary. Written at the age of 17 immediately after Il sogno di Scipione, Lucio Silla seems nowadays to have been relegated to specialist festivals and rarity concert performances. It was not heard in the UK until 1967, nearly 200 years after its composition. Although styled a ‘Konzertante Aufführung’, Rita Cosentino’s production was, to all intents and purposes, a semi-staged representation without the burden of expensive sets. There was some clever usage of five L-shaped screens, and the principals and chorus were costumed in mostly black with red scarves which would not have looked out of place at Anfield.

The period-instrument 36 member Insula Orchestra from Boulogne-Billancourt played Mozart’s intricate score with élan and sensitivity. The many sforzando and fp markings were meticulously observed and there was admirable attention to orchestral detail. Period brass were excitingly raspy and the strings had a bright sonority which the excellent acoustics of the house displayed to the utmost.

Led by its founder, Laurence Equilbey, there was commendable congruity between pit and stage. Maestro Equilbey is more business-like collaborator than Simone Young diva on the podium and there was impressive economy of gesture in her batonless conducting technique. A tendency to frequently brush back her stylish coiffure could have lead to confusing up-beats but it seems the young ensemble were used to such mannerisms. Obviously Furtwängler or Solti never had that problem.

The singers were first-rate, with an outstanding performance from Chiara Skerath as Cinna. Her rousing “Vieni ov’amor” was impeccable in phrasing and admirable for the evenness of the 16th-note roulades. There was a warm tone throughout and marked sensitivity to the text such as her Act II aria “Nel fortunate instante”. As Silla’s sister Celia, Belgian soprano Ilse Eerens displayed a solid technique despite a tendency to pinch slightly in the very top register. Her Act I “Se lusinghiere speme” aria was memorable for the pristine staccato octave scale passages to top C.  

The role of tyrannicidal Cecilio was sung by Baroque music specialist countertenor Franco Fagioli. His performance was certainly a crowd-pleaser and there was much to admire. His word colouring in the recitatives was consistently impressive. Whilst the fioratura in “Il tenero momento” was accurate and the leaps from low A to high F on “premio di tanto” cleanly taken, there was a noticeable change of gears and the extreme chest notes seemed somewhat distended. The tender Act III “Pupille amate” aria and proceeding recitative displayed outstanding breath control and sensitive word painting.

As the object of Silla’s unwelcome matrimonial intentions, the role of Giunia was impressively sung by Russian soprano Olga Pudova. The part covers an extraordinary range from low A to top D above the stave. Even at 16, Mozart wasn’t going to indulge his divas. Giunia’s pyrotechnic “Ah se il crudel perigilio” aria certainly foreshadows “Martern alle Arten” and is no less technically demanding. The eight measure roulade on “gelarmi fa” reaching a top D natural demands extraordinary breath control and accuracy which Miss Pudova handled with ease. It was in the tender Act III “Sposa mia vita…Fra i pensier” scena however that she was even more impressive. The chest notes were rich and plummy, the piano top A naturals delicately nuanced and long phrases in the Andante section stylishly shaped.

Alessandro Liberatore © R. Recantesi
Alessandro Liberatore
© R. Recantesi

Compared to more lyric Mozart tenors such as Peter Schreier in the title role, Alessandro Liberatore was a revelation. With a robust vocal colour not unlike Jonas Kaufmann and a projection which almost overwhelmed the 1,000 seat house, this was in all respects a riveting performance. Perhaps some of the phrasing was more Mascagni than Mozart, but this is a tenor who also sings Otello. “D’ogni pietà mi spoglio” in Act II was frightening in its intensity and “donna audace” was almost spat rather than sung.

With some excellent chorus singing by the Arnold Schoenberg Choir, especially in the graveyard scene and the stentorian “Il gran Silla” finale, this was in all respects an outstanding ensemble performance. Vienna’s ‘other house’ scored a singular triumph.