The Staatstheater Kassel is a small house – too small to employ covers in case of illness or accident. When two of their six leads for Mozart’s Lucio Silla fell sick at the last minute, they had to get creative. One part (Giunia) was cut entirely; the other (Cecilio) was sung from the pit while the assistant director acted it onstage. The result was messy, but it’s a minor miracle that the show went on at all.

Tobias Hächler (Lucio Silla) and Younggi Moses Do (Aufidio) © N. Klinger
Tobias Hächler (Lucio Silla) and Younggi Moses Do (Aufidio)
© N. Klinger

Giunia and Cecilio are not minor characters – they’re the couple at the heart of this opera seria. The plot: Cecilio has secretly returned from banishment with the help of his friend Cinna. Giunia has been told that Cecilio is dead but nonetheless steadfastly refuses the dictator Lucio Silla’s marriage proposal. Cecilio’s and Cinna’s plot to kill Silla goes wrong, and Cecilio is condemned to death. But Silla has a change of heart: he pardons Cecilio and relinquishes the throne.

At least, that’s the plot of Giovanni di Gamerra’s libretto. This Kassel performance is perhaps better thought of as a concert of Mozart arias by singers is zany costumes. Most of the confusion was due to the unexpected cuts of all of Giunia’s arias, ensembles and recitative, which play an important role in the plot. Since Cecilio’s final aria was also cut (presumably in the original plan), we lost the entire assassination attempt and Cecilio’s condemnation to death, which made for a sudden and senseless ending.

Maren Engelhardt (Cecilio) and Elizabeth Bailey (Giunia) © N. Klinger
Maren Engelhardt (Cecilio) and Elizabeth Bailey (Giunia)
© N. Klinger

Stephan Müller’s staging didn’t clarify matters. The pit was placed in the middle of a circular stage, limiting the singers’ movement options. A small, brightly lit box far upstage served as the venue for fights, a massage, and furtive hangings. The point of it all remained obscure, though the martial arts displays and outrageous costumes looked cool. Credit for the latter goes to Carla Caminati, whose runway-worthy creations included a blinding suit of changeable red-silver fabric for Silla and a boxy tower of white ruffles for Giunia.

The musical star of the evening was mezzo-soprano Karolina Gumos, singing Cecilio from the orchestra pit (while Emanuel Werres mimed the role). She complemented a reedy tone and chesty middle register with expressive use of dynamics. The other women impressed as well. Bénédicte Tauran swaggered about the stage with aplomb as Cinna, delivering quick coloratura accurately with an always-spinning sound. Lin Lin Fan sang Celia’s arias in a silvery soprano, alternating smooth legato with the precise staccato her pieces demanded. (In one clever bit of staging, she sang her first aria while giving Silla a massage, and her staccato notes emerged in time with her pounding of his feet and back.)

Bénédicte Tauran (Cinna) and Lin Lin Fan (Celia) © N. Klinger
Bénédicte Tauran (Cinna) and Lin Lin Fan (Celia)
© N. Klinger

The men showed equal dramatic commitment, but found less vocal success. Younggi Moses Do’s Aufidio was underpowered, and the coloratura early in “Guerrier che d’un acciaro” was sloppy. To his credit, he found his stride mid-aria and finished in strong voice, with an exciting final set of runs. As Lucio Silla, Tobias Hächler showed off a crackling, warm tone with nice squillo. His maneuvers across wide intervals were clunky, and high notes sounded strained. He brought wonderful presence and energy to the stage, though, in a production that badly needed it.

Inspired by period orchestra arrangements, Jörg Halubek led the Staatsorchester Kassel from one of the harpsichords. At the other harpsichord, Giulia Glennon lent structure to the (few remaining) recitatives. Despite the seating plan, the style of the orchestra overall was more 19th-century than Baroque. The playing was both vigorous and sensitive to the singers. The string section did an especially good job of milking the richness of Mozart’s score.

I can’t honestly say I saw Lucio Silla on Friday, but I did hear some lovely arias from it.