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Classical Opera - Apollo et Hyacinthus - Opera


01 August 2012
Opera
Brian Robbins

Mozart's first dramatic work was commissioned not by an opera house, but by the University of Salzburg. The work we now know as Apollo et Hyacinthus belongs to a long-standing Salzburg tradition of giving a musical intermedium, in effect a short opera, between the acts of a Latin play. Both entertainments were performed by university students. In 1767 the topic rather oddly chose for the intermedium was the mythological story of the jealousy of Zephyr for the love of Apollo and Hyacinth, a scenario with overt homoerotic connotations and one therefore hardly suitable for the students of a Benedictine University. The librettist Rufinus Widl got round this problem by inventing female love interest in the form of Melia, the sister of Hyacinthus, whose father King Oebalus is also introduced into the plot. If the resultant work produced by the 11-year old Mozart is, as might be expected, not a masterpiece, there are enough hints of the embryonic natural dramatist to make it well worth an occasional revival.

The present recording is, appropriately enough, the first in a new series of what is intended to be a complete cycle of the Mozart operas, spread over a period of 20 years, an extraordinarily far-reaching and bold initiative given the present uncertain times. So the first thing to stress is that Ian Page's direction of Apollo carries rich promise of his ability to deliver a valuable contribution to historically-informed Mozart opera performance. That's not to say that anything is ideal yet: in particular, I hope that he will in future pay greater attention to dynamic markings than is sometimes the case here. But in general terms tempos, balance and phrasing all convey the impression we are in the company of that rare beast, an instinctive Mozartian. Praise is deserved, too, for the responsive and warmly affectionate playing of his period-instrument band, never more beguiling than in the enchanting duet for Melia and Oebalus, an Andante shortly to be reused in the Symphony if F, K.43. Page has now gone on the offensive regarding his use of arpeggiated cello chords in plain recitative. He claims 'plenty of documentary evidence' for the practice, but I don't find his citation of a French cello treatise of 1804 convincingly relevant to a work given in Salzburg nearly 40 years earlier

The general stylishness of the performance extends by and large to the cast, all of whom supply appoggiaturas and decorated fermatas, though ornamentation in repeats is fairly conservative. While Mozart could obviously not stretch his youthful singers too much, he did not spare them some fairly demanding music. The passaggi and coloratura of Melia's aria 'Laetari, iocari', a joyous celebration of Apollo's love, asks for virtuoso singing and receives it from Klara Ek. Oebalus's 'Ut navis', on the other hand, is a conventional 'simile' aria encompassing a wide tessitura. It is impressively sung by Andrew Kennedy, who contributes some of the most elegantly stylish Mozart singing I've heard from a tenor in a while. Neither countertenor is greatly extended, but both the Apollo of Lawrence Zazzo and Christopher Ainslie's Zephyrus are excellent, the former making much of the impressively dramatic duet in which the god attempts to placate Melia, furious in her belief that he has killed her brother. Sophie Bevans sounds a little over- sophisticated for the Hyacinthus (the role was created by a 12-year old boy) and some of the notes above the stave are undisciplined, but I can forgive much from a singer capable of producing a proper trill.

This is a fine achievement. I much look forward to future issues, though with no expectation of being around to review the culmination of the cycle!


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