Mozart’s Lucio Silla at the Buxton Festival Back

On this, our third, visit to the Buxton Festival, the decision was made to travel from Oxford and to return the same evening to see Mozart’s eighth opera Lucio Silla. Written in Milan between October and December 1772 when the composer was sixteen, it was first performed on 26 December of that year. It had a disastrous first night. Due to start at 5.30pm and to last four hours, excluding the customary three ballets, it was delayed for two hours and ended at 2 am (Carolyn Gianturco: Mozart’s Early Operas, 1981, p133). Despite this, the opera was a great success, running for twenty-six performances.

Having read uniformly bad press reviews of this summer’s production, one feared a disappointing excursion. But the critics were wrong. The performance was thoroughly enjoyable in a two and a half hour, two act version; it was well worth the journey. Apart from a thirty-minute hold up on the M40 at Banbury, all went well and we arrived in time for refreshment before the 7.15pm start.

Silla, a despotic tyrant, wishes to marry Giunia, daughter of Cajo Mario whom he has murdered. To this end he has spread a rumour of the death of Cecilio her betrothed. Cecilio’s friend Cinna, secret enemy of Silla, warns of the situation and brings the lovers together. Silla vows to kill Giunia. She, however refuses to go along with the suggestion that she marries Silla and then kills him. In a side plot, Silla’s sister Celia is in love with Cinna. Further complications ensue until Silla has a sudden change of heart, abdicates and forgives all who have plotted against him.

In this production, the scene is set in a seedy dictatorship, not unfamiliar in the world today, those in charge dressed in unkempt uniforms, the populace in shabby modern dress. The set consists of a single scaffold-like construction. This is the great weakness. Lacking any sense of place, it is not worthy of the musical performance. This is superb. A co-production with The English Concert, it is under the direction of Laurence Cummings and does full justice to Mozart’s prodigal invention. The singing likewise is first-rate. Only Joshua Ellicott seems miscast, having to strive to play the baddie Silla until he throws off his uniform at the end. Of the rest, soprano Madeleine Pierard as Cecilio stood out and compelled the attention. Rebecca Bottone as Giunia started nervously but ended in full control of her fiendishly difficult arias. Other roles were Fleur Wyn as Celia and Karolina Plicková as Cinna. Ben Thapa played the cameo role of Aufidio, the sycophantic follower of Silla who must eat his words.

Lucio Silla is proved to be an opera worth reviving. The weakness and illogicality of the plot resulting from the circumstances of its construction and from the youthfulness of the composer are outweighed by the beauty and profundity of the music.

© PETER SCHOFIELD

Lucio Silla was performed at Buxton Opera House between 9th July and 20th July 2017.