Although called a ‘sacred musical play’ (geistliches Singspiel), Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots (K. 35) was indeed ‘Mozart’s first stage work’, as rightly pointed out by Ian Page in the programme notes to the staged performance at St John’s Smith Square. And it would be difficult to find musicians more suitable to perform this work by the 11-year-old Mozart than Classical Opera, dedicated to the exploration of lesser-known aspects of the composer’s large opus. Their project Mozart 250 enables the public to follow the trajectory of Mozart’s career from a distance of 250 years, the year 2017 thus being devoted to the musical activities of the child prodigy from Salzburg in 1767. Besides The First Commandment, in June the project will include the staging of Mozart’s next dramatic work, Apollo et Hyacinthus.
It comes as no surprise that the boy composer made his first attempts in smaller dramatic genres before trying his luck in mainstream Singspiel, opera seria and opera buffa. What we heard at St John’s Smith Square was only the first of what is in essence a three-part allegorical oratorio or a large-scale sacred cantata. The second part had been set by Michael Haydn and the third by Anton Adlgasser, each first performed on a different Lent evening in Salzburg, although only Mozart’s score has been preserved. With the duration of approximately ninety minutes, Mozart’s music offers enough material for a whole evening’s entertainment, and Classical Opera’s performance proves that it can carry this weight with ease. The score consists of an overture and a mere eight vocal numbers, arias for the five soloists (three sopranos and two tenors) and a final trio. They are bound together by recitative (some of it densely accompanied, thereby recalling the dramatic accompagnatos of Mozart’s mature Italian operas) telling the story of a ‘half-hearted Christian’ (Alessandro Fisher), an everyman of sorts for whose ‘sleeping’ soul the allegorical figures of Christian Spirit (Sam Furness), Justice (Helen Sherman) and Compassion (Gemma Summerfield) wage war on the Worldly Spirit (Rebecca Bottone).
Rather than take a boldly abstract approach like Calixto Bieito did in his production of the likewise allegorical oratorio Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno at Stuttgart Opera on 11 February 2012, director Thomas Guthrie understood The First Commandment as a social parable set in Georgian England. Perhaps in deliberate contrast to Nigel Lewis’s spiced up translation of the libretto (referencing Speaker’s Corner, among other things), the allegorical characters were identified with eighteenth-century strollers in a pleasure garden. The young singers successfully supplied the religious abstraction of the libretto with realistic or even caricatured traits, especially Gemma Summerfield as the hypocritical Compassion and Sam Furness as the almost suspiciously zealous Christian Spirit. In terms of comedic impact, it was Alessandro Fisher’s indulgent beau Christian and Rebecca Bottone’s loveable coquette Worldly Spirit who stole the limelight. The characters were vividly drawn and their interaction on stage well-rehearsed, although one cannot avoid the impression that this kind of reading had been imposed on the libretto rather than sprung from it. Nevertheless, the staging had a clear function in enhancing an effortless unfolding of Mozart’s juvenile score.
Ian Page displayed a confident grasp of the early teenager’s evolving musical style and helped infuse the orchestra of Classical Opera’s playing with vitality and panache. As expected, not all numbers in the opera show the same level of musical invention, but it is symptomatic that Mozart – however much help he may have had from his father Leopold or Michael Haydn in this – carefully placed the best bits in the middle of the score. Nevertheless, the first four arias show a mastery of the classical idiom and considerable aptness to the dramatic situation, but in the Worldly Spirit’s first aria, ‘Hat der Schöpfer’ (Life is pleasure), Mozart already anticipates the musical world of his Singspiels. However, it is the next two arias that show the young composer at the height of his powers. Although it was announced that he had bronchitis, Alessandro Fisher stood up well to the lyrical demands of his only aria ‘Jener Donnerworte Kraft’ (Words of thunder), together with trombone player Stephanie Dyer, who reminded Christian of the Last Trumpet’s call with a precise, if not too resolute rendition of her part on stage. The following aria, ‘Schildre einen Philosophen’ (There he preaches), is the Worldly Spirit’s decisive rebuttal of the Christian Spirit’s philosophy. It is fascinating that at such an early age Mozart already had a multi-faceted musical conception of dramatic character and chose to defy the expectations of another typical aria for soubrette soprano like ‘Hat der Schöpfer’, imbuing his setting with a dignified, almost symphonic flair instead.
Rebecca Bottone was indeed the most accomplished singer in the cast even though the Worldly Spirit is not the technically most demanding role in the work. Sam Furness projected his part a bit too confidently at times, although on stage this had the effect of highlighting the inner insecurities of the Christian Spirit’s character. Although still somewhat lacking in concentration and direction compared to the subtlety of Mozart’s mature operas, the lengthy final trio testifies of the young composer’s proclivity for vocal ensembles. Furness’s, Sherman’s and Summerfield’s voices did not blend particularly well in this trio, but this does not diminish the overall positive impression that both the soloists and the orchestra made in a dedicated performance of this rarely heard, let alone seen sacred work.
Classical Opera performed at St John’s Smith Square on 21st and 22nd March 2017.