Classical Opera - Apollo et Hyacinthus -

Yes, it is extraordinary that a work of this proficiency was composed by an eleven-year-old, but Mozart's first opera has a lot more than precocity to recommend it. It was commissioned in 1767 by the grammar school attached to the Salzburg's Benedectine University, to provide light relief in the middle of a performance by students of a five-act tragedy, in Latin.This was written by the university's Professor of Syntax, a Benedictine monk named Rufinus Ridl and although one may wonder if light relief was his forte, he wrote the libretto for the opera as well.

Taking the myth of the love triangle between Apollo, Zephyrus and Hyacinthus as his point of departure, the monk attempted to heterosexualise the plot with the introduction of a sister for Hyacinthus, as a distraction for his suitors. Ridl's efforts were possibly undermined by the fact that, as this was an all-boys' school, she was played by a boy in any case.They were also a little perfunctory, given how floridly Zephyrus still worships Hyacinthus in the opening scene. Oh well, as my grandmother might have said, they all sing in high voices anyway, so who knows what's going on?

This recording from Classical Opera, an English group specialising in the works of Mozart and his contemporaries, is the first in a projected new complete cycle of Mozart opera recordings. Virtually its only competition is a recording under Leopold Hager from the Phillips Complete Mozart Edition. While that boasts a cast including Arleen Auger and Anthony Rolfe Johnson, this new one better captures the spirit of a work created for performance by students in a school rather than by professionals in an opera house. Beautifully scaled for its modest purposes, this depiction of an Arcadian idyll interrupted by tragedy includes a sprightly overture, a characterful aria for each of the protagonists, a couple of duets, a trio, a chorus, and recitative that ranges from efficient to moving, particularly at the death of Hyacinthus.

Under conductor Ian Page, this ensemble has the measure of the piece-both instrumentally and vocally it seems ideally weighted. The singers are consistently good, with tenor Andrew Kennedy as King Oebalus standing out, not only as the deepest voice in a cast of sopranos and countertenors, but for the gravitas and emotion he brings. Best of all, Kennedy and Klara Ekas Melia provide a sterling performance of the work's standout-Natus cadit-the sister and father's lament on the death of Hyacinthus. Simple, subtle, it's as poignant as anything Mozart composed for his subsequent operas. That something already so perfectly Mozartean came from his eleven-year-old self is not just precocious, it's awe-inspiring.
01 January 2013