Picture a teenager finally receiving his long-coveted driver’s license, and then easing onto the open road with glinting eyes. Mozart wrote his opera “Lucio Silla” at the age of 16, and one senses in its music — the way it floors the pedal through long straightaways of coloratura — something of the exhilaration of a young and brilliant composer first behind the wheel.
Not that this was Mozart’s first opera — “Mitridate, re di Ponto” came before it, and has many similar qualities — but this piece, written in 1772 for the Carnival Season in Milan, signals a mounting confidence and gives more than a hint of what lies in Mozart’s future.
On Wednesday night in Boston University Theatre, Odyssey Opera brought local audiences a chance to take their own measure of this rarely spotted work, offering it as the second half of “When in Rome,” its ambitious opera seria mini-festival. An unobtrusive if somewhat bland staging by Isabel Milenski framed the evening, and the virtuosic singing of the principals carried the night.
Like Gluck’s “Ezio,” its counterpart in this festival, “Lucio Silla” spins a fanciful tale anchored by an actual historical character (in this case, the Roman general Lucius Cornelius Sulla). The libretto, by Giovanni de Gamerra, hews for the most part to the conventional themes of opera seria, here especially the conflict between heart and sword, the resoluteness of lovers and the rapacity of empire.
The dictator Lucio Silla has imprisoned Giunia in his palace, and seeks to usurp the place of her true betrothed, the exiled senator Cecilio. Plans for Giunia’s rescue go awry and all is looking grim until Silla’s sudden change of heart in the work’s closing minutes, during which he chooses to spare Cecilio’s life, join the true lovers in marriage, and summarily dissolve his own dictatorship.
This kind of bolt-from-the-blue arrival of clemency and political wisdom was hardly unusual in opera seria libretti of the day, but here it’s hard to resist wondering how it resonated with the young Mozart, a composer whose later operas would be so permeated with the dreams and promises of the Enlightenment.
Certainly the music Mozart wrote for “Lucio Silla” bursts with energy and enough vocal fireworks to fuel one extremely long aria after another. Interestingly, early works like this tend to breed their own habits of listening. Once one knows Mozart’s mature operatic masterworks, you can’t help but listen “backward” to scores like this one, the way one scans the face of a child in an old photograph looking for the inchoate features of the adult he will become. Those features are here to be found, especially in the emphatic choral writing and in that hard-to-describe quality of soulful melancholy present in moments of lyric pathos.
On Wednesday night, Katy Lindhart excelled in the punishingly difficult role of Giunia, singing with an impressive combination of accuracy, musicality, and sheer stamina. As Silla, Yeghishe Manucharyan projected a forceful muscularity, even if he did not seem overly intent on challenging the two-dimensional aspects of this role. Michael Maniaci was a tender-voiced Cecilio, and Joanna Mongiardo delivered the role of Cinna, the senator’s friend, with a bright, pellucid clarity. Sara Heaton brought a sensual luster to the part of Celia, Silla’s sister, and Omar Najmi capably dispatched the role of Aufidio, Silla’s friend.
The orchestral playing under Gil Rose’s baton was well-paced, detailed, and assured, even if at times one wished for somewhat more intensity to match the heat and gymnastic vocalism coming off the stage.
Presented by Odyssey Opera. At Boston University Theatre, June 8 (repeats June 10 and 12)