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Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots [Image by Classical Opera]
29 Sep 2013

Die Schuldigkeit Des Ersten Gebots

Last week I enjoyed the opportunity to see Bampton Classical Opera’s light-hearted, witty production of Mozart’s earliest opera — La finta semplice — a work which, despite lacking the melodic variety and texture dynamism of the later operas, is still a remarkably accomplished achievement for a boy of merely twelve years of age.

Die Schuldigkeit Des Ersten Gebots by Classical Opera

A review by Claire Seymour

Above image by Classical Opera


In fact, Mozart first put words and music together in an extended dramatic work of substance during the previous year, 1767, and at the Wigmore Hall it was the turn of Classical Opera to present the whizz kid’s juvenilia, offering a rare chance to hear Die Schuldigkeit Des Ersten Gebots — a setting of Ignaz Anton Weiser’s adaptation of an episode from St Mark’s Gospel, which was composed for performance at the Archbishop of Salzburg’s Palace during the period of Lent, when secular plays and opera were forbidden.

The libretto is a righteous allegory, albeit one presented with a dash of wry drollness. A half-hearted Christian lies sleeping, while Mercy, Justice and the Spirit of Christianity engage in a debate, pontificating vociferously in a series of three sententious arias. When the Christian awakens, he is afraid — perhaps he has overheard Justice’s severe moralising? — but comfort is at hand, in the form of the Spirit of Worldliness who offers him the pleasures of freedom, sensuality and dreams, slyly reassuring him that the warnings he has hearkened are no more than a trap prepared by their common enemy, or a fleeting dream. The Spirit of Christianity seeks to save the wavering Christian from debauchery and damnation, entering disguised as a doctor and warning that ‘spiritual surgery’ is needed. The Christian begins to question him in the hope of learning the elixir of eternal life, but Worldliness, bored by their discussion, declares that the best medicine is gambling, hunting and sexual pleasure. The Christian is, however, impressed by the Christian Spirit’s arguments, and accepts a sealed document in which the ‘miracle cure’ is contained, before Worldliness interrupts and drags off her protégé to a dinner party, leaving the censorious trio to sermonise once more in a concluding ensemble. Whose fault will it be if the Christian is eternally damned? Only his own, they agree.

The action takes place ‘in an agreeable landscape, with a garden and a small wood’; the first performance was probably presented in concert form but with some stylisation and stage setting. Here, COC chose — as is their usual practice — to present the oratorio/cantata in concert performance — the singers’ attire providing the only theatrical signposts: black austerity for Justice and Mercy, glittering creamy gold for the Spirit of Worldliness, and a white coat for the Spirit of Christianity when in medical guise.

But, the plot is simple, the characterisation unambiguous, and the cast told the tale engagingly; and, while the text is often excessively moralistic and highfalutin, the singers made the most of the musical glimpses of the young Mozart’s dry delight in, and tender sympathy for, human shortcomings.

All the cast got through the lengthy recitatives with impressively direct communication and conversational naturalness. Sarah Fox, as Mercy, was particularly assured in this regard, confidently delivering the recitative off-score. In her aria, Mercy objects that men wander from the straight path through lack of willpower and because they do not obey ‘the first commandment’ (the literal translation of the title) — ‘Thou shall love the Lord thy God’. Fox sustained the extended melodic lines evenly, but occasionally the large leaps to the upper register lacked a smooth grace.

Mary Bevan was a regal and imperious Spirit of Justice, once her intonation had settled. Bevan injected energy into Justice’s repeated demands that the Christian — ‘the lazy scoundrel’ — should arouse himself from his slumber, a nimble rising figure from the cellos adding a gentle humour as Justice insists that she cannot show tolerance towards souls unworthy of mercy, as it is her duty to reward the righteous and punish the guilty. In the slower second section of the da capo aria, unison string quavers throbbed mordantly, the minor key hinting at the inescapable moment of reckoning that awaits all men.

As the hedonistic Spirit of Worldliness, Ailish Tynan adopted an aptly spirited bearing, her gown and coloratura glittering with equal devilishness. Tynan’s flexible soprano danced through the sprightly rhythms of her aria, executing the coiling runs and trills insouciantly; she demonstrated considerable stamina, and her cadential trills were tight and bright. She exhibited a rich, seductive sheen, although occasionally her voice was less well-focused in the lower register.

Allan Clayton was admirable as the faltering Christian; awakening from his dream, his tenor was movingly earnest and open, as he was reminded of the torments of Hell and Judgement by rushing strings and sharp dotted rhythms. With tender delicacy, Clayton conveyed the vacillations and waverings of the Christian’s soul, complemented by some gentle string playing and a notably agile and accurate, horn obbligato played with assurance and sensitivity by Gavin Edwards. The elaborated vocal repetitions of the da capo were fluid and flexible, Clayton’s melodic lines evenly sustained and well-supported.

Robert Murray sang the Christian Spirit’s opening number, and his ‘diagnostic aria’, with directness and firmness, confidently compassing the upper reaches, extravagantly ornamenting the cadences and demonstrating excellent length of line in the running semi-quaver passages. Murray’s account of the ‘operation’ which would literally ‘make’ humans could have been even more mischievous, but the asides had a playful shrouded quality.

The overture, while not a bad symphonic effort for an eleven-year-old, is a rather repetitive ritornello structure and somewhat uninventive, melodically and harmonically. Though performed with elegance by the players of the Orchestra of Classical Opera, with striking dynamic contrasts, I felt the rather thick scoring demanded a lighter touch, and a faster pace, than conductor Ian Page provided — indeed, there was several places where the tempo seemed rather slow, resulting in a lack of dramatic momentum and musical nimbleness. Page did, however, bring clarity to the inner textures, foregrounding interesting accompaniment motifs, many of which significantly contribute to the musical characterisation.

The youthful composer frequently responded pictorially to the text, painting the words mimetically, and the instrumentalists under the baton of Ian Page were responsive to such details. ‘An enraged lion roars’ as punchy horns growl accompanied by scurrying strings, for example, and at Christianity’s mention of the ‘hideous howling’ emitting from the chasm of Hell a veritable orchestral tumult ensued culminating in eerie harmonic twists as ‘if one of the damned himself/ were to rise up from his grave’!

Although the spirit of mischievous irony which this spiced up Lenten entertainment surely infers was not always sufficiently indulged, there is a childlike sincerity about this work which Classical Opera deftly captured.

This month, the company release a recording of a new partnership with Signum Records, Die Schuldigkeit Des Ersten Gebots — the first enterprise in a new partnership with Signum Records. The two-disc set includes an exclusive feature film on the making of the recording, as well as additional French and Italian translations of the notes, synopsis and libretto, which are provided in English and German in the accompanying liner booklet. Clayton and Fox reprise their roles and they are joined by Andrew Kennedy (Spirit of Christianity), Sophie Bevan (Spirit of Worldliness) and Cora Burggraaf (Justice). Ian Page conducts.

Classical Opera perform more Mozart at the Wigmore Hall on 31 December, and on 30 January and 8 May next year; while on 13 March, they travel across town to Cadogan Hall for a performance of an opera composed at the opposite end of Mozart’s life, La clemenza di Tito.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Justice, Mary Bevan (soprano); The Spirit of Christianity, Robert Murray (tenor); Mercy, Sarah Fox (soprano); The half-hearted Christian, Allan Clayton (tenor); The Spirit of Worldliness, Ailish Tynan (soprano); conductor, Ian Page; The Orchestra of Classical Opera; continuo, Christopher Bucknall (harpsichord), Andrew Skidmore (cello), Cecelia Bruggemeyer (double bass). Classical Opera Company. Wigmore Hall, London, Tuesday 24th September 2013.

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