Mozart’s playful flirting with opera seria is a real treat for music lovers. Composed two years after his furious Mitridate, Lucio Silla shows a 16-year-old genius who was starting to realise just how much could be achieved in the twisted margins of classic operatic forms. Its score is an exciting succession of innovations: mosts of the recitatives are accompagnato, the old structure of arias is frequently broken, with long and complex A-parts and the orchestral thread gives sense and harmonic coherence to the whole work. Although sometimes unfairly treated as a juvenile and half-baked promise of greater things to come (and come they did), Lucio Silla is a delightful feat of mannerist opera seria and at the same time the start upon a bold new path of psychological exploration. In an odd choice for the grand opening of the season that marks the 200th anniversary of the house, the Teatro Real has hired exactly the same cast and production that performed the title at the Liceu four years ago. Judging by the excellent results, it was a happy déjà-vu nonetheless.

Claus Guth’s production is a perfect example of how to respect the rigid structure of an archaic operatic form while underlining its most innovative elements. The music always inspired the acting and the structure of the arias had its exact correspondence in the singers’ movements. The production is based on the duality separating the tragic dark world of the lovers Cecilio and Giunia and the whiteness of Silla’s zany rule. In a brilliant reference, Guth connected Cecilio’s unstoppable desire to see Giunia with Orpheus’ quest to bring Eurydice back from the Hades: blind in the dark, he fails to reach the veiled shadow of Giunia, always postponing the “tenero momento”. This reached its utmost realisation at the end of Act I, when the lovers, lying on the ground like gloomy spectres, recognise each other in fear and whispers. In stark contrast, Silla’s realm was aggressively bright, depicted almost with farcical traits, as a crushing caricature of a tormented dictator.

Christian Schmidt's revolving stage gives Guth the variety of spaces that he needs for displaying the drama, all disturbing non-places (alleys, brutalist corridors). The gruesome chamber where Silla rules and conspires resembles a civil war morgue. The recurrence of spaces helped to portray the characters but it all got a bit repetitive. In a subversion of the lieto fine, Silla invites all the characters to a dismal dinner in which he feigns his resignation only to appear again at the end on his crimson cloak.

Kurt Streit seized his opportunity and led the cast with a mesmerising portrait of sadistic Lucio Silla. His voice, virile and perfectly projected, was sometimes close to the harsh sounds of a character tenor which, along with impressive acting, gave extraordinary dramatic depth to the interpretation. His phrasing was superb, especially in recitatives, delivered with cynic eloquence. Silvia Tro Santafé’s Cecilio lacked stage charisma, but her performance was a handbook of excellent bel canto singing. Her bright lyric mezzo-soprano, with a beautiful quick vibrato, sounded so free and buoyant that melody stood in all its purity. She gave true variety of accents to “Il tenero momento” . In her bravura “Quest'improvviso temito”, she sharpened her phrasing and played a convincing hero with mighty, clean high notes, while in her beautiful farewell to Giunia she sang with extraordinary legato and genuine mezza voce.

Patricia Petibon struggled with Giunia’s hard vocality, especially in the extreme "Ah se il crudel periglio”, where her heterodox technique and blurry coloratura proved a problem. She was more convincing in the recitatives and in Act 3's arioso "Fra i pensier più funesti”, where she achieved intense and affected expression. However, her unconventional vocal traits, together with her magnetic stage persona, singled out Giunia as the centrepiece of the drama, underscoring all the formal and expressive innovations that Mozart poured into the score.

Celia is an uninteresting character, her arias beautiful but conventional, but María José Moreno's light soprano was crystal clear and her technique is superb, with great coloratura and bright high notes, despite slight imprecision in the scales of "Se lusinghiera speme”. The character of Cinna is under-developed in the libretto, his heroism a bit overshadowed by Cecilio’s, and Inga Kalna, despite her solid technique, was unable to stand out. Kenneth Tarver is too good of a tenor for the dull role of Aufidio and he proved that he was in great form in the character’s only aria.

Ivor Bolton contributed to the overall success of the performance with a lively rendition of Mozart’s score. He conducted with passion the Teatro Real Orchestra, that sounded totally in style, with agile tempi and bright sound.