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 Mozart: <em>Il sogno di Scipione</em> K.126.  Stuart Jackson, Klara Ek, Soraya Mafi, Krystian Adam, Robert Murray, Chiara Skerath. The Choir and Orchestra of Classical Opera. Ian Page.
21 Nov 2017

Il sogno di Scipione: a new recording from Classical Opera

With this recording of Mozart’s 1771 opera, Il sogno di Scipione (Sicpio’s Dream), Classical Opera continue their progress through the adolescent composer’s precocious achievements and take another step towards the fulfilment of their complete Mozart opera series for Signum Classics.

Mozart: Il sogno di Scipione K.126. Stuart Jackson, Klara Ek, Soraya Mafi, Krystian Adam, Robert Murray, Chiara Skerath. The Choir and Orchestra of Classical Opera. Ian Page.

A review by Claire Seymour

Signum Classics SIGCD499 [2 CDs (49:57 & 58:17)]


This one-act serenata drammatica was thought to have been commissioned to celebrate the installation of Hieronymus, Count Colloredo, as Archbishop of Salzburg in spring 1772 but, after ultra-violet testing revealed that in the recitative leading to the dedicatory licenza the name ‘Girolamo’ (Italian for Hieronymus) had supplanted the erased ‘Sigismondo’, this opinion was revised. [1] The work is now believed to have been commissioned the preceding year by the then Archbishop, Sigismund von Schrattenbach. When Schrattenbach died unexpectedly in December 1771, the fifteen-year-old Mozart altered the dedication and date of composition, and replaced the original licenza with a longer and more florid honorific conclusion. (Classical Opera perform this second licenza, but provide the original as an appendix.) In any case, there is no documentary evidence that it was ever performed, in part or in its entirety, and the first performance is generally held to be that given in Salzburg in January 1979.

Il sogno di Scipione is light on action and heavy on allegory. Metastasio’s libretto, drawing on Cicero’s tale of the Roman general Scipio Aemilianus, presents the dilemma faced by Scipio who, falling into a deep sleep, dreams that he is visited by two goddesses, Fortuna and Costanza, who each implore him to choose them to be his sole guide as he fulfils his duty to complete the destruction of Carthage. Fortuna beguiles him with the thrills offered by chance. Costanza transports him to the heavens where he is confronted by the spirits of Roman generals of yore, among them the ghosts of his father, Emilio, and adoptive grandfather, Publio. His forebears offer their advice but tell him he must make his own choice. To Fortuna’s fury, Scipio elects to follow constancy; she throws him back down to earth where, with this right and proper conclusion to the moral quandary, Licenza appears and pays homage to the Archbishop.

The six roles are all assigned to high voices (three sopranos and three tenors), and Page has been fortunate to be able to call upon a talented young cast comprising Classical Opera Associate Artists soprano Soraya Mafi (Fortuna) and tenor Stuart Jackson (Scipio), alongside four other gifted young singers - sopranos Klara Ek (Costanza) and Chiara Skerath (Licenza) and tenors Krystian Adam (Publio) and Robert Murray (Emilio). For, the bravura demands of the da capo arias are considerable and sustained.

Soraya Mafi conveys the full extent of Fortuna’s tempestuous unpredictability in ‘Lieve sono al par del vento’ (I am capricious as the wind): the florid curlicues are rhythmically even, the pitch spot-on, and the tone sparkles. She evinces a core strength of sound, and considerable lung-power, to sail through the extended runs and emerge gleaming at the top. In Fortuna’s Act 2 ‘A chi serena io miro’ the sweetness of the violins speaks of her duplicity and manipulativeness, while the vocal line really glistens. The enchanting triplets are supple and seductive, but the brief, indignant B-section tells us all we need to know about the perils of meddling with Fortune, while Mafi’s suavity of tone and phrasing confirms Fortuna’s egoism in the da capo repeat.

Klara Ek brings a thrilling brightness and muscular agility to the role of Costanza. The sound is pure and direct in ‘Ciglio che al sol di gira’ (The eye that turns to the sun) as she warns Scipio against the excesses offered by Fortuna, which will dazzle him, disguising her danger: the graceful violin playing adds significantly to the earnestness of the vocal expression. If Ek’s trills are not quite so shapely as those of Mafi, then she admirable enormous stamina; and if the final cadential decoration is rather extended and not entirely idiomatic, then the radiant stratospherics are impressive and one might forgive such indulgence in a dramatic context. Ek’s diction is excellent in the bravura show-piece aria ‘Biancheggia in mar lo scoglio’ (The rock turns white in the sea), in which Costanza asserts her case that she alone can ‘impose limits and laws on her dreaded empire’: we can hear the incipient seeds of the determination and intransigency the Queen of the Night, Kostanze and Fiordiligi - we know that this Costanza will not give up.

As Scipio, in his first recitative Stuart Jackson sounds genuinely bewildered to have been woken and confronted by a divine duo - an amazement expressed by the accomplished vocal vaults, some of which take the ear by surprise, florid runs and rhetorical trills of his opening aria, ‘Risolver non osa’ (My confused mind). Jackson’s coloratura is not quite as pristine as that of his female implorers, though the interpolated extravagances at the close do impress; but, the tenor certainly captures Scipio’s conflicting confusion and majesty, and launches with confidence at the mountainous peaks. In Act 2’s climactic ‘Di’ che sei l’arbitra’ (You say you are the arbiter), Page is sensitive regarding tempo and dynamics but Jackson’s fioratura is not consistently centred and the intonation wanders at times. That said, he does create a convincing three-dimensional character and in the more lyrical passages the vocal warmth and appeal is unwavering.

Krystian Adam’s Publio is dignified and earnest in the long recitative in which he urges his grandson to remember his responsibilities to his family, to history and to his present subjects. Adam convincingly suggests experience, maturity and wisdom: in his aria, ‘Se vuoi che te raccolgano’ (If you wish these realms to welcome you), imposing brass imply his former might but the vocal line is itself sensitively shaped, replete with strong emotion which will surely touch his grandson’s heart and conscience. The coloratura is lightly negotiated; there is never a sense of an old man huffing and puffing, and if a little more baritonal colour might have deepened the characterisation further, then this was in evidence in Publio’s fluently unfolding Act 2 aria, complemented by vibrant strings and propulsive horns.

Robert Murray displays a fittingly youthful ring and crispness as Emilio, which is complemented in ‘Voi colaggiù ridete’ (Down there you laugh) by some lovely interjections from the flutes and violins; indeed, I wonder if Emilio does not come across as rather too sympathetic here - after all, the father is taunting his son’s, and all mortals’, presumption and pride? But, in the B-section of the aria Murray finds a brusqueness - ‘Up here we laugh at you,/for at the end of your days, when your hair is all white/you are still children’ - which briefly suggests contempt and a warning born from undoubted love for his son.

Chiara Skerath floats through the lovely extended, florid phrases of Licenza’s ‘Ah perchè cercar degg’io’ (Ah why should I search), in which her timbral variety is complemented by woodwind and horns. And, the Chorus of Heroes would undoubtedly have given Scipio a shock upon his arrival in heaven! A triumphant wall of sound greets him, the trumpet’s flourishes of glory cutting through the massed choral ensemble (which is admittedly not the young Mozart’s most inspired effort - though there are a few tricks borrowed from Handel).

The Orchestra of Classical Opera plays stylishly for Page, and with plenty of character and spirit. The Overture skips fleetly along, punctuated by ceremonial punch from brightly ringing horns and trumpets. The string articulation is incisive and clean; the woodwind offer piquant hues and, in the slower triple-time section that concludes the overture, blend beguilingly - no wonder Scipio is lulled into comforting oblivion. The tuttis conjure excitement and drama, and Page makes effective use of the modulatory twists. In the ensuing arias, the ambitious young Mozart loads his instrumental parts with copious detail and Page - and the Signum engineers - makes sure that we hear them all, but also that busyness does not become weightiness. To take an early example, just a few bars into Scipio’s first aria, the second violins find themselves breezing delicately through rapid arpeggio figuration. Page moves with fluency between the varied tempi and moods of the individual arias and the light touch continuo keeps the secco recitatives moving along. The single accompanied recitative - when Scipio resists Fortuna’s blasts of light and upturned spheres, and feels Constancy’s ‘divinity’ infusing his breast - is brilliantly crafted. This number finds Jackson at his best too: his tone is forthright, plosive consonants giving way to first gentility and assurance, and finally noble confidence. This is stirring musical theatre.

The CD-booklet presents a complete libretto, with English translation. And, Page provides an engaging and informative account of the contextual background and the composition of the work, as well as drawing attention to striking features of the libretto and score. As always, there is no doubting Page’s commitment and he writes persuasively and with evident passion and pleasure about the telling details which reveal the teenage Mozart’s ‘dramatic genius’, such as the musical representation of Scipio’s dream-swept progress into Elysium and his subsequent re-awakening.

Could Il sogno di Scipione ‘work’ in the theatre? When Christopher Alden offered the US its stage premiere of the work - with Henry Street Chamber Opera (now Gotham Chamber Opera) conducted by Neal Goren - his spicy modern-dress production was praised (in Opera News, August 2001), for its ‘valiant’ attempt to bring life to a drama which is ‘forbiddingly inert’. A 2006 Salzburg production, directed by Michael Sturminger and conducted by Robin Ticciati was felt by Brian Robins ( Fanfare, July 2007) to have musical merits but to suffer from ‘idiotic direction’. Judith Weir must have considered the work to have innate dramatic potential when in 1991 she adapted Mozart’s serenata for her 30-minute chamber opera Scipio’s Dream. [2]

Perhaps Page and Classical Opera will one day give UK audiences the opportunity to judge for ourselves. In the meantime, the characterful music-making on this recording offers substantial musical enjoyment.

Claire Seymour

Mozart: Il sogno di Scipione K.126
Classical Opera - Ian Page (conductor)

Scipione - Stuart Jackson, Costanza - Klara Ek, Fortuna - Soraya Mafi, Publio - Krystian Adam, Emilio - Robert Murray, Licenza - Chiara Skerath, The Choir and Orchestra of Classical Opera.

[1] A detailed account of the work’s origins can be found in E.T. Glasow’s review of the 2001 recording by the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra under conductor Gottfried von der Goltzin, in The Opera Quarterly, Autumn 2001, Vol.17(4), pp.739-743. Glasow also suggests that it was the association of Mozart’s azione teatrale with the Archbishop who later dismissed Mozart from his service, that led to its negative reception by musicologists who scorned it as ‘that wretched piece’ (Alfred Einstein, Mozart: His Character, His Work) and ‘formal and uninspired’ (Edward J. Dent, Mozart’s Operas: A Critical Study).

[2] This chamber opera, written in collaboration with Margaret Williams, was commissioned by the BBC and AVRO Holland as a television film in the Not Mozart series.

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