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Susannah Biller as Fortuna [Photo by Richard Termine courtesy of Gotham Chamber Opera]
19 Apr 2012

Il Sogno di Scipione

It’s unclear whether Mozart composed this highly undramatic “dramatic action” when he was fifteen, for his kindly master Prince-Archbishop von Schrettenbach of Salzburg, or the following year for the newly-elected successor, Prince-Archbishop Colloredo, who, soon afterwards, had the young man literally kicked out of his service.

W. A. Mozart: Il Sogno di Scipione

Constanza: Marie-Ève Munger; Fortuna: Susannah Biller; Licenza: Maeve Höglund; Scipione: Michele Angelini; Publio: Arthur Espiritu; Emilio: Chad A. Johnson. Chorus and orchestra of the Gotham Chamber Opera, conducted by Neal Goren. Production by Christopher Alden. At the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College. Performance of April 13.

Above: Susannah Biller as Fortuna

Photos by Richard Termine courtesy of Gotham Chamber Opera


It is also unclear how much of Sogno was ever performed in Mozart’s lifetime—very little, apparently. The piece’s modern revival, possibly world premiere, took place in 1979 with a cast (recorded) whose luxe is hardly imaginable for such a project today: Popp, Gruberova, Mathis, Schreier, et al.

RT_MG_0537_1.pngMichele Angelini as Scipione

The text is a moralizing serenata by the indefatigable imperial court poet Metastasio (only his death, after half a century on the job, left the Viennese post to Lorenzo da Ponte). He drew it from Cicero’s moralizing fable of the younger Scipio Africanus choosing (in a dream) virtue over pleasure in the fine old Roman republican manner, thus putting to shame the decadent Romans of Cicero’s later era when the republic was dying. Metastasio made the choice between Good Luck (Fortuna) and Self-Discipline (Constanza), and of course Scipio chooses the latter, though not without Fortuna getting to make her case pretty well. Sententious sentiment made the libretto ideal for formal occasions, such as the investment of a new archbishop, but rather a stretch in the theater. I saw it at the Residenz-Theater in Munich in 1991 (on a double-bill with Mozart’s Apollo und Hyakinthos); the exquisite jewel-box theater considerably outshone the music. Neal Goren, of Gotham Chamber Opera, claims that when he started his company ten years ago, he slyly told Christopher Alden that there was a Mozart opera that had never been staged in this country (true) and that it was regarded as unstageable. Alden, naturally, took this as a challenge. To celebrate ten felicitous years, Gotham has revived his brilliant opening, which I missed at the time.

RT_MG_0260_1.pngCast of Il Sogno di Scipione

The production’s Regie-theater clichés must, in 2001, have been as startling to a New York audience as Goren hoped they’d be. They still make the audience laugh—and remain attentive. The curtain rises in heaven, a bare bedroom, and Scipio wakes scratchily from a doze to find himself literally between the sheets between two goddesses, from whom he must choose one. (At last Friday’s performance, Fortuna has gone to bed with filthy feet. I have no idea whether this was part of the director’s vision.) Fortuna presents herself as fickle but fun by doing a reverse striptease, pulling assorted outfits from a closet and trying them on for us. (Shoes! Tops! Wigs!) Constanza never sheds her nightdress but she invokes the Music of the Spheres, impersonated by globular hanging lamps. A chorus of dead heroes appears at the window in assorted deadbeat garb, echoes from a zombie movie. (Scipio, terrified, climbs on the wardrobe to escape them.) Scipio’s father (Publio, an amputee in this version) and grandfather (Emilio, wheelchair-bound and blind) show up to remind the lad of the glories of public service, in arias that Mozart cannot have intended to possess the ironic air Alden’s staging gives them. At last, though spooked, Scipio chooses Constanza (the path of duty), Fortuna is frustrated, and an Epilogue (Licenza) appears to warble the best tune of the night, congratulating the audience (in Mozart’s day, the Archibishop; nowadays, us) for having the taste to admire this sublime entertainment. Alden’s Licenza demonstrates her enthusiasm by tossing disco moves into her coloratura ecstasies.

All of this activity and ironic subtext-as-commentary-within-action undoubtedly gives the score a better chance of being appreciated than it would ever secure if performed “straight.” Doubt crept in during the more elaborate vocal displays—the piece was written for vocal display, illustrating and underlining the meanings of the text, and as the intended first cast were Salzburg singers, Mozart knew just what they could do. The young singers performing for Gotham Chamber Opera were all of them more than qualified to do justice to Mozart, personable, talented actors as well. But none of the performances was entirely on the mark, coloratura were often uneven, a little tuneless or imprecise, and it was impossible to suppress the notion that they’d have sung better if there had been less wriggling about (or tottering, in the case of amputated Publio, or clambering up the walls of the armoire in the case of Scipio, or thrash-dancing in the case of Licenza). It was an occasion of colorful performing but the Mozart-singing suffered for it.

RT_MG_0246_1.pngSusannah Biller as Fortuna, Michele Angelini as Scipione and Marie-Ève Munger as Constanza

The two most interesting voices, the ones that made me eager to hear them again in less athletic circumstances, belonged to Michele Angelini as dreaming Scipio and to Maeve Höglund as Licenza. Angelini possesses a baritonal tenor, an agreeable sound of masculine depth and a happy instinct for phrasing, plus an easy extension to an agreeable lyric top. One foresees enjoying him as Idomeneo or Belmonte. Höglund had the most sensuous voice of the bunch, a soprano with mezzo undertones, luscious and sensuous in a text that lacked seductive implications but seemed to have them when she put it over. Susannah Biller’s Fortuna was flashy, sometimes to strident effect. Marie-Ève Munger’s Costanza was altogether more cozy, but then it can’t be easy to impersonate something so stolid with any flare. Arthur Espiritu and Chad A. Johnson were effective as the ghosts of Scipio’s family past. Neal Goren led a very spirited orchestra and chorus, and nearly two hours passed as harmoniously as Ptolemy the Astronomer could have demanded.

John Yohalem

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