A phrase borrowed from The Tempest, "rich and strange," barely begins to describe the new production of Mozart's early (K. 135), rarely seen Lucio Silla that just opened at the Santa Fe Opera. But the phrase from one of Ariel's songs offers a key to this willful, outrageous, vocally stunning and visually astonishing show of shows.
Most of us, like it or not, remain victims of naturalism, a hard-to-define visual and theatrical style that claims the truth of things lies in art's nitty-gritty imitation of the life we experience in our own ***image1***doggy worlds. Think Stanley Kowalski's torn T-shirt. This way of looking at the world is pretty recent, only going back two centuries or so. Verisimilitude rules. Down with mannerism and fakery.
For an example of the really rich and strange and mannered, just go back to opera seria, child of the baroque and exemplar of a preference for far-out artifice over the merely natural. If it ain't patently artificial, it ain't art. And unlike some recent pasteurized, naturalized productions of opera seria, the SFO's new Lucio dares to explore the downright strangeness of this antique genre.
Call it the shock of the old. Paul Brown's massively ornamental costumes seem a ridiculous poke in the eye at first, but take a look at costume sketches for French court-ballet or baroque opera; Brown's stage-spanning panniered dresses and immense surcoats for gents are right in the groove. His and associate designer Luis Carvalho's gloss-black, High Style revolving set may hark back only to ultra-ultra productions like those at the Paris Opèra in the '90s, but it represents the apparent triumph of style over substance, another deceptive feature of opera seria.
Jonathan Kent's staging seems equally at odds with our naturalistic expectations. Bizarre, often titter-provoking, it drops ***image2***us into a fantasy dream-world where stylization is everything. Some of the time this works, though at others it's shockingly inappropriate.
Sixteen-year-old Mozart provided plenty of his earliest "mature" work in Lucio Silla: notably the extended tomb scene concluding Act 1, his inspired orchestra-accompanied recitatives, deeply felt arias for his principals. The SFO's cast makes the best of all possible cases for the work, although Bernard Labadie's work in the pit seemed cautious, uninspired and out of sync with his superb cast.
Susan Graham sings tragic, heroic Cecilio, and Celena Shafer is Giunia, his tormented beloved. Their hearts beat powerfully beneath the rigorous florid and legato demands of the score, executed with ease and grace. The secondary, equally demanding roles of Celia and her hopeful love, Cinna, are well taken by Anna Christy and male soprano Michael Minaci. Gregory Kunde sings the title role.