‘Il sogno di Scipione’
Written by the sixteen-year-old Mozart with a libretto by Pietro Metastasio, “Il sogno di Scipione” was performed by the Gotham Chamber Opera at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College, April 11-21. I caught the next to the last performance. According to the conductor’s notes (Neal Goren), “The vocal writing is far more virtuosic than in any of Mozart’s other work, even such throat-twisters as Mitridate, which was composed one year earlier. Two of the tenor roles and all three soprano roles call for effortless high C’s and relentless vocal agility. I can think of no other opera in the entire repertory with such uncompromising technical requirements.” That didn’t stop the director (Christopher Alden) from putting his very young singers through all sorts of acrobatic stage business as they sang their endless da capo arias, quite beautifully too. One gorgeous soprano (Marie-Eve Munger) changed her entire outfit down to bra and panties six or seven times during one of her numbers. The only moment of rest in the opera was during the overture. From the start you see a handsome, young dude sleeping (Michele Angelini, our Scipio). Then you realize there’s a beautiful woman in bed with him. Toward the end of the overture you realize there’s a second woman in the bed. They’re the goddesses of Fortune and Constancy come to woo Scipio. While Fortuna sang her florid clothes-changing aria, Constanza (Susannah Biller) silently did a whole yoga routine (very creditably!) and Scipio humped a pillow. One of the tenors (Chad A. Johnson) played a one-legged war hero, the ghost of Scipio’s ancestor, Scipio Africanus, I imagine. All the time he was flopping around the stage (even with only one leg he was required to do a heck of a lot of “action”) I couldn’t figure out how he/they did it. It was only at the curtain call that I realized that he really is one-legged! Or was it all merely un sogno or via some high-tech whizardry?
Mozart wrote the opera in 1771 for the ordination to priesthood of his patron, Sigismond, Count Schrattenbach, but poor Siggie died before he could be ordained. Mozart then offered it for the installation of Archbishop Colloredo, but it apparently wasn’t accepted. (Imagine such entertainment today, let’s say, for the celebration of Cardinal Dolan’s elevation to the College of Cardinals.) The world premiere of “Il sogno di Scipione” was in Salzburg in — get this — 1979! It was wonderful to see so many young artists so accomplished as singers and actors. Ironic when the operatic audience here and elsewhere is generally so old. Is that supposed to cheer us up or fill us with envy?