In 1776, three composers set to work on the composition of a sacred Singspiel in three parts to be performed that Lent. The second and third parts of Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots were entrusted to the 29-year old Michael Haydn and the 37-year old Anton Adlgasser. The first – and only surviving – part was entrusted to the pen of the eleven-year old Mozart, who had recently gained the favour of the Archbishop of Salzburg. It was technically Mozart’s first composition for the stage. His first opera, Apollo et Hyacinthus, premiered a few weeks later.

Sam Furness and Alessandro Fisher © Benjamin Ealovega
Sam Furness and Alessandro Fisher
© Benjamin Ealovega

There’s a key difference, grounded in the religious laws of the time. During the Lent period, secular drama was forbidden, and in its place a whole sub-genre of sacred Singspiele sprang up – dramatic enough, but with key religious figures and teachings as the substantial framework around which to compose. This particular work takes the order to love God with heart, mind etc, as the first commandment from the Gospel of Mark and from that is created a struggle for the soul of one mortal denizen, designated “Christian’’ by the supernatural figures Christian Spirit and Worldly Spirit, with some input from Justice and Compassion. The score is unsurprisingly brilliant for someone of the composer’s age and offers an interesting point of comparison with Mozart’s mature works. The hallmarks are there in the quirky dynamic between characters, a strong sense of line and a flair for using the orchestra as a narrative assistant.

Classical Opera presented the work in Thomas Guthrie’s simple, but effective staging at St John Smith’s Square. We were in some form of garden in, judging by an off-hand comment in the translation, the mature Mozart’s time. Red roses curled around pillars; three benches sat in the centre and the Stalls were given some small use as well. The work was performed in Nigel Lewis’ English translation which sparkled with humour and puns. Dominating proceedings was Rebecca Bottone’s Worldly Spirit who with her large pile of blond hair, dazzling smile and amorous approach seemed to be a reincarnation of one of Barbara Windsor’s Carry On characters. I almost expected a cry of “Saucy!”. Vocally, she displayed a fine bubbling top that easily coped with the high notes and trills of the character, at her best in “Life is pleasure, do not waste it”. Diction wasn’t always as clear as it could have been, but it was a keen embodiment of the character. Tenor Sam Furness adopted a slight braying tone which took some getting used to and often obscured his voice’s tonal colour, but was entirely appropriate for the virtuous, but dull, Christian Spirit and we were given a particularly fine “Life is not a bed of roses”, stridently delivered and showing off a burly higher register. Diction was strong and expression was always forceful.

Rebecca Bottone and Alessandro Fisher © Benjamin Ealovega
Rebecca Bottone and Alessandro Fisher
© Benjamin Ealovega

Prior to the performance, it was announced that our other tenor, Alessandro Fisher, had contracted bronchitis, but was going to sing anyway. In any event, the illness did not cause much obstruction beyond a slight reduction in vocal flexibility; it’s a less muscular voice than Furness’, but with warm delivery and crystal articulation. He provided plenty of comedy, playing up the drunken stupour and responding well to Bottone’s advances. Gemma Summerfield, singing Compassion, showed off a full voiced soprano with an incisive top, but slight underprojected in the lower register. Mezzo Helen Sherman was thin voiced and controlled as Justice, with clean diction and amusingly puritanical acting in response to the debauchery of Christian.

Ian Page drew a spirited reading from the Orchestra of Classical Opera which brought out the vibrancy of the piece and highlighted the dramatic flair of the orchestral effects representing the horrors of Christian’s dreams. 

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