Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Apollo et Hyancinthus @ St. John’s, Smith Square, London

12, 13 June 2017

Gemma Summerfield
(Photo: Arno Photography)

The latest event in Classical Opera’s Mozart 250 series, in which the concerts always feature compositions written a quarter of a millennium before the current year, included the child prodigy’s first true opera, Apollo et Hyacinthus. In 1767 the eleven-year old Mozart was commissioned to write this musical ‘intermedium’ to accompany a five-act Latin tragedy Clementia Croesi (The Clemency of Croesus), which was to be performed in Salzburg.

Like the majority of the operas that Mozart wrote before his much later collaborations with Da Ponte, Apollo et Hyacinthus is based on an ancient myth (from Ovid’s Metamorphoses). This was the norm for the time, and even the great composer at such a young age would have been in no position to challenge the subject matter or the libretto provided for him by the Professor of Syntax at Salzburg University, Benedictine monk Rufinus Widl. If the work, however, feels rather innocent because of the story it employs, it could not be described as naïve because the music is exceptionally polished. Lasting a little over an hour, it is a far smaller work than the composer’s later masterpieces, but within its smaller parameters it feels just as accomplished.

Consisting of a Prologue and two Choruses, the story sees Apollo, who has been expelled from heaven by Zeus, appear before King Oebalus of Lacedaemonia, his son Hyacinthus and daughter Melia. Apollo and Melia are soon in love but Hyacinthus’ friend Zephyrus, in an attempt to win Melia for himself, strikes Hyacinthus with a discus before telling Oebalus and Melia that Apollo has killed him. The pair are mortified, with both agreeing that there is no way they could ever embrace the god. Then, however, Oebalus finds Hyacinthus, severely wounded but not actually dead, and with his dying breath he proclaims Zephyrus to be his murderer. At this Oebalus and Melia beg Apollo’s forgiveness for the way that they treated him when they thought him guilty, Melia and Apollo reaffirm their wish to marry and the latter transforms Hyacinthus’ body into a bank of flowers that will bear his name forever.

The beautiful music saw short passages within arias suddenly become unaccompanied, while the recitative largely employed a trio of harpsichord, cello and double bass continuo. The Orchestra of Classical Opera, under the baton of Ian Page, delivered playing of exceptional balance, beauty and polish, while the soloists were also strong.

Perhaps the most high profile performer was countertenor Tim Mead who delivered sterling singing as Apollo, in a performance that exuded confidence. As Melia, Klara Ek’s strong but versatile sound and precise phrasing suggested she would make a good Donna Elvira, while Benjamin Hulett had a very warm and easy tone as Oebalus. Gemma Summerfield was also an appealing Hyacinthus and James Hall an engaging Zephyrus.  

Under the direction of Thomas Guthrie, the opera was staged simply yet effectively as a sacrificial altar also acted as a resting place for Hyacinthus’ body. The piece starts with a sacrifice to Apollo and throughout there was a strong air of ritual as priests stood around and characters often entered and exited through the auditorium. The death of Hyacinthus was also moving as it took place in front of the orchestra with Oebalus cradling his dying son.

Before the interval two other pieces that were either written or revised in 1767 were performed. Mozart’s three movement Symphony in G major, K.45a has been criticised for ‘the remarkable plainness and monotony of its second and third movements’. This judgment, however, from German musicologist Anna Amalie Abert in 1964, who erroneously suggested the piece had been written by Leopold Mozart rather than his son, seems remarkably harsh. At the very least the fact that the composer wrote it when he was ten (he revised it a year later) is enough to make the mind boggle, but more importantly the Andante sounds absolutely sublime.

As a method of providing a linking ‘narrative’ across the evening robed figures began to cross the stage slowly during the latter parts of the symphony. Then the cantata that immediately followed, Grabmusik, K.42, saw the soul of a man lament Christ’s death before an angel who, by challenging him to take personal responsibility for the world’s problems, saw him undergo an epiphany. With the title meaning ‘Cantata on Christ’s grave’ it was first performed during the Holy Week of 1767. Here what was to become the altar in Apollo et Hyacinthus formed Christ’s tomb, while the fact that Gemma Summerfield as Der Engel and Benjamin Appl as Die Seele cradled a Christ child wrapped in swaddling clothes brought further poignancy to the presentation.

For details of all forthcoming events in the Mozart 250 series visit the Classical Opera website.

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Apollo et Hyancinthus @ St. John’s, Smith Square, London