Once upon a time an intrepid youth showing off his precocious skills as a cyclist boasted, “Look, Ma, no hands!” The 16 year-old Mozart could well have been exclaiming the same as he composed Lucio Silla in 1772. While adolescents nowadays dream of “going viral” or writing the next killer app, Mozart was busy writing operas. Lucio Silla was his third for Milan. It is so infused with youthful zeal and confidence that one can well understand Alfred Einstein writing of, “music…  much too beautiful, too rich, too overdone, too instrumentally conceived.” Regardless, over-egged Mozart is still Mozart and Lucio Silla pre-echoes much to come from instrumental works such as the Clarinet Concerto to Idomeneo, Die Entführung aus dem Serail and his final opera, La clemenza di Tito.

Yeghishe Manucharyan (Lucio Silla) © Kathy Wittman
Yeghishe Manucharyan (Lucio Silla)
© Kathy Wittman

Lucio Silla was the second offering in Odyssey Opera's mini-festival of opera seria, “When In Rome”. Both operas shared Jian Jing's unit set of square columns and panels, but now painted light grey. Chairs and sofas and flowering topiary in marble urns substituted for Ezio's expressionistic cubes. Seth Bodie's costumes were traditionally Roman in cut but much more brightly colored. The women were elegantly draped and coiffed, particularly Silla's sister Celia, who was attractively bejeweled as well.

Isabel Milenski's staging was straightforward and uncluttered and served the drama well. One directorial touch was hell on the furniture, though, and developed into a tic: characters unable to master their emotions invariably toppled a plant, upended a chair or overturned a sofa. In general, though, emphasizing physicality paid great dividends dramatically, notably in the volatile, violent Act II confrontation between Silla and Giunia.

Michael Maniaci (Cecilio) © Kathy Wittman
Michael Maniaci (Cecilio)
© Kathy Wittman
The cast was strong, but for one unfortunate exception, male sopranist Michael Maniaci's Cecilio. Perhaps he was indisposed in some way, because he certainly sounded better later in the evening. For the most part, however, he was underpowered and at times marginally audible. The notes seemed weightless, transparent and lacking a solid center. Occasionally, one note in a series would inexplicably drop out entirely. Even so, he blended well with Katy Lindhart's Giunia when they sang together and conjured a rapt, plangent rendering of Cecilio's final aria, “Pupille amate”.

Lindhart's bio mentions Susanna, Pamina and Zerlina as recent roles, which is surprising since this is a Donna Anna/Donna Elvira caliber voice, large, robust and flexible. A few, initial squally top notes aside, her voice flexed to the emotional demands of the drama – indomitable and defiant in her rejections of Silla's advances, consumed by grief at the thought of her father's murder at his hands, tender and devoted in her interactions with Cecilio. Joanna Mongiardo as Cinna was unrecognizable, persuasively masculine in carriage and demeanor, but looking a little like Justin Bieber in her short blond wig and make-up. What was immediately recognizable, however, was her smooth, plummy, seamlessly blended soprano and fluid coloratura.

Sara Heaton (Celia) © Kathy Wittman
Sara Heaton (Celia)
© Kathy Wittman
In many ways, Celia is the most aware and therefore empowered of all the characters. She does not hesitate to achieve her aims by wile and guile. She alone knows both what she wants and how to get it. If the conclusion in all its opera seria implausibility makes any sense at all, it is because of her various interventions. Sara Heaton's jewel-like soprano captured all of Celia's sensual, mercurial charm and substance.

Illness forced the tenor singing Silla to withdraw nine days before the première. Mozart scrambled to make adjustments suitable to his less skilled and experienced replacement. Two of Silla's four arias were cut and the role simplified overall, effectively relegating the title character to the sidelines and making his hairpin embrace of mercy and forgiveness even more far-fetched. Yeghishe Manucharyan's profile would not be out of place on a Roman coin; his presence was commanding as was his ringing Italianate tenor, which captured both the dictator's capricious hauteur and dueling motives.

Gil Rose and the orchestra once again provided sensitive support to the singers and never let the drama flag. The demands on the singers are so great that this score is rarely performed uncut. Some of Rose's decisions in this respect were puzzling. Excisions in Act III made the plot's denouement even more peremptory that it already was. And he opened a cut, restoring Aufidio's bellicose Act II aria – well and forcefully sung by Omar Najmi – without giving the tribune much else assigned to him.

Lucius Cornelius Sulla bore the sobriquet Felix, “The Lucky One”. Mozart's opera seemed similarly kissed by fortune when it ran for 26 performances in Milan after its première. Yet it had to wait until 1929 for a revival. The imperfections of this performance aside, Odyssey Opera's production proves that Lucio Silla deserves to be heard more often.

***11