Until I sat through the two and three quarter hours of Ascanio in Alba, I fondly imagined myself to love every single note that Mozart committed to paper. Well, I was wrong. After the first half hour of this concert performance by the period instrument ensemble Europa Galanta under Fabio Biondi, I sagged in my seat, bored by the redundancy of an opera that is both plotless and musically repetitive.
Ascanio in Alba, K111, is a festa teatrale in two acts, that was written for the wedding of Archduke Ferdinand of Habsburg to Princess Maria Beatrice d’Este of Modena. The first performance was on 17 October 1771 at the Teatro Regio Ducal, Milan, when Mozart was just 15 years old.
Although I’m a huge fan of the operas Mitridate and Lucio Silla of the same period, I can’t help but feel that he got it wrong with this one. The story is non-existent. Shepherds are happy in fields. Venus comes along with her votaries, including Fauno, and the priest Alceste. She tells Ascanio he is going to marry Silvia; they marry; the opera ends. It’s basically an allegory of the wedding that was taking place in Milan, and as the programme note rightly says, it’s a highly situated pièce d’occasion rather than a timeless masterpiece.
There are Mozart’s masterpieces and there are Mozart’s lesser masterpieces; this is neither. Aside from a pretty trio right at the end, and an attempt to manipulate the narrative structure with a recurring chorus between the arias, I find little inspiration in the rather conventional and predictable da capo arias, and it seems strange that Mozart and his librettist (Giuseppe Parini) should have chosen so static a subject for an opera of this length. Constancy in love and duty to the gods are exalted as the virtues of marriage in this ‘wedding serenata’; there’s not much else to the piece, sadly.
Try as they may, the Europa Galanta and their cast could not breathe life into the work. It didn’t help that they were all so reliant on their scores, or that they were so awkwardly positioned on the stage. Physically, the piece was very static, and most of the voices lacked operatic dimensions. In addition, there was very little chemistry between the singers, which only intensified the static feel to the opera.
Fabio Biondi conducted from the violin, and stood too far behind the singers, so that control was very poor, and every time he abruptly resumed playing after conducting, a very distracting accent was inevitably produced. He also struggled to find any nuance in the score: the players seemed to play in a languid style or else bang their instruments unpleasantly. The period woodwind and brass musicians were more successful, however, and the chorus warmed up after a tepid start to produce an attractive glow and precision.
Patrizia Biccirè took over at the last minute as Venus, and compensated for a slightly small volume by her exquisite and distinctive tone. Carlos Mena was the counter-tenor in the lead role; I found his falsetto only partially successful, and the tone rather bland (though this seems to me to be a problem with counter-tenors in general, and not everyone agrees).
Anna Chierichetti’s voice is naturally expressive, and perfect for more romantic roles. Here, as Silvia, she was marred by some technical problems, including a wide vibrato, a tendency to smile too much to the detriment of her tone and control, and tension in the shoulders. Markus Schäfer had a sweet voice as Aceste, though he struggled with the coloratura.
The singer to garner the greatest applause from the audience was the young South Korean soprano Sunhae Im as Fausto. Certainly she had the notes and the vibrato, but there was a blandness about her voice that left me cold. On a more technical level, she had a habit of singing a rising scale but becoming tense at the top rather than singing through it. She was pretty and had an idyllic coloratura, however.
In all, a disappointing start to the Mostly Mozart Festival at the Barbican Hall. Nevertheless, the coming weeks promise a wide variety of events with different performers, and it’s certainly good to see that the festival has been extended for the Mozart at 250 year.