Il sogno di Scipione (1771-2), the sixteen-year-old Mozart’s seventh stage work (counting the sacred singspiel Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots), is really more of a serenata than a conventional opera, as it is an allegorical vision rather than a fully dramatic narrative.
The great Roman general Scipio Aemilianus (or Scipio Africanus the Younger who, in history, later led the complete destruction of Carthage in the Third Punic War) is taken to Heaven in a dream and is challenged to make his choice between the personified figures of Fortune and Constancy as the guide to his way of life back down on Earth. Such a moralising scenario might not seem a promising subject, but the teenage Mozart rose to the occasion, injecting his score with as much inventiveness as the static structure of its libretto permits, comprising the old opera seria format of a sequence of recitative and arias, broken up with only two choruses.
That proves no hindrance to Ian Page and Classical Opera either, as they deliver an engaging and fully dramatised reading of the music, despite some of its long arias, usually fully-fledged sonata-forms, rather than the crisper ternary da capo form of Baroque opera, but Page brings fluency and character to their generous instrumental introductions and succeeding vocal displays.
Already in the first aria Page gives life to the ritornellos with a pleasing lilt, and Stuart Jackson as an elegant, lithe-voiced hero as Scipione, charting a secure, level-headed course through the arguments which Costanza and Fortuna lay before him. Soraya Mafi makes her case as the latter first – imperious and commanding, and not merely capricious, though she achieves a seductive lightness and radiance in her second aria, which is rightly coaxing. By contrast Klara Ek sings Costanza with a winning clarity that ultimately convinces Scipione to follow her; in the solid but effortless way she handles the high notes and fast runs of her second aria, using the metaphor of a steadfast rock in the text, she will put listeners in mind of Fiordiligi’s ‘Come scoglio’ in Cosi fan tutte, composed nearly two decades later.
The spirits of Scipione’s forbears – Emilio (his father) and Publio (his adoptive grandfather) – put in an appearance too. Robert Murray and Krystian Adam, respectively, sound appropriately serene and lyrical, expressing the fact that, as Emilio explains, immortal souls in Heaven are more composed and emotionless than mortal humans, and so their performances bring out a detached magnanimity commensurate with that. Publio’s ‘Quercia annosa su l'erte pendici’, however, is the occasion for somewhat more vigour with its sturdier rhythms.
Mozart originally wrote the work in homage to the Prince Archbishop of Salzburg, Sigismund Schattenbach, but his death in the meantime caused the composer to turn his composition into an act of celebration on the installation of the Archbishop’s successor, Hieronymus Colloredo (who was infamously to turn Mozart out of his employment in 1781). It is not clear whether it was performed, but Mozart revised its epilogue in which Licenza, the personified muse, explains that the drama is really supposed to put the audience in mind of the Archbishop, and so the reference to the said potentate was altered. Both versions of the aria are usefully provided in this recording, taken with jubilant sparkle by Chiara Skerath.
Aficionados will know Leopold Hager’s 1979 recording which later appeared in Philips’s Complete Mozart Edition (also featuring both version of Licenza’s aria). That boasts an impressive cast, including Peter Schreier, Lucia Popp, Edita Gruberova and Edith Mathis, who offer notable heft and authority. Listeners who prefer modern performing practice will favour that version, and indeed it is unlikely to be superseded. By comparison, Page’s historically-informed reading sometimes sounds thin, notably in the string textures. But his line-up of some of the finest young singers working within this repertoire brings verve and enthusiastic presence, even despite a slightly distant recorded acoustic. In so doing, they bring a new dimension to a comparatively little-known work that should win it fresh admirers (there are riches aplenty amidst the operas Mozart wrote before Idomeneo and The Abduction from the Seraglio) and renew the appreciation of those already acquainted with it. Italian text and an English translation are included in the booklet.