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Classical Opera - Apollo et Hyacinthus - Gramophone


01 July 2012
Gramophone
Richard Wigmore

The 11-year-old Mozart's very first stage work. As a nine-year-old in London, Mozart displayed his innate theatrical flair in a series of operatic improvisations that astonished the scholar Dr Daines Barrington. Two years later, in 1767, he produced his first stage work, a so-called intermedio performed in the intervals of a Latin tragedy at the Salzburg university school. Eighteenth-century sensibilities could not stomach the homoerotic overtones of Apollo's love for the beautiful youth Hyacinth, transformed into a flower after his murder by the jealous Zephyr. So, in a heterosexual metamorphosis, the love rivalry is provoked not by Hyacinth but by his sister Melia, who, improbably, ends up marrying the god. With or without a little help from his father, at the age of 11 Mozart had confidently mastered the techniques of opera seria. No one should be surprised if some of the arias (there is one for each character) hardly rise above a generic vein of graceful galanterie. But Melia celebrates her imminent promotion to goddess in a delightfully spirited coloratura showpiece. Best of all - and pointers to the future - are the two duets: a fierily dramatic one for Melia and Apollo, and a bittersweet lament for Melia and her father Oebalus, with an exquisite orchestral tapestry of muted first violins, pizzicato seconds and basses and murmuring violas.

Ian Page and his Classical Opera Company have long been winning plaudits in Mozart's early operas especially. With inspiriting conducting, lissom and, where apt, punchy orchestral playing, and first-rate singing from company regulars, their performance of this thoroughly charming intermedio could hardly be bettered. Tempi - often a notch fleeter, invariably more buoyant than on the rival version conducted by Leopold Hager - are always justly chosen, while the potentially tedious recitatives, animated by Steven Devine's harpsichord and Joseph Crouch's cello, are as dramatic as the text allows.

Of the two countertenors, the bright, extrovert Laurence Zazzo contrasts well with the more contained, rounded tones of Christopher Ainslie - and it is not Ainslie's fault that Zephyr's amiable aria barely suggests the character's treachery. Andrew Kennedy finds an incisive ring for his turbulent ‘shipwreck' aria, while sopranos Klara Ek and Sophie Bevan bring to their arias a poise and panache far beyond anything Mozart could have heard from the schoolchildren who originally took the roles. For my taste the oboes and horns are sometimes too discreetly balanced. Otherwise no complaints about either the recording or the presentation, with full texts and translations, and an enthusiastic and informative essay by Ian Page.
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