Mostly Mozart – Ascanio in Alba

Ascanio in Alba, K111

Venere – Patrizia Biccire
Ascanio – Carlos Mena
Silvia – Anna Chierichetti
Aceste – Markus Schäfer
Fauno – Sunhae Im

Chorus [of spirits, shepherds, shepherdesses and nymphs]

Europa Galanta
Fabio Biondi

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 6 June, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

This wedding serenata or festa teatrale was first performed in October 1771 on the occasion of the marriage of Archduke Ferdinand (son of the Austrian Empress, Maria Theresa) to Princess Maria Beatrice d’Este (daughter of the Duke of Modena). The work is a formal allegory of praise for marital virtue, constancy in love and duty to a presiding deity. There is spectacle, chiefly by way of choral interpolations and dances. A mild plot is thrown in for good measure, developed through a succession of arias in the manner of opera seria. The soloists move about ceremonially, addressing one another formally and rather statically.

Ascanio (c.f. Archduke Ferdinand) is to marry Silvia (c.f. Princess Maria Beatrice d’Este); Ascanio is the grandson of Venus (c.f. Empress Maria Theresa) and Silvia is the daughter of Hercules (c.f. Ercole d’Este, Duke of Modena). Venus causes Silvia to fall in love with a dream image of Ascanio, while Ascanio is permitted to espy Silvia but not disclose his identity. The city of Alba Longa springs up miraculously – as a concrete manifestation of this personal and dynastic union. Silvia has a single aria of torment, uncertain whether the man she loves is or is not the real Ascanio, but all ends joyously.

Mozart wrote this, his fifth operatic work, aged 15. A wide-ranging orchestra was at his disposal, enabling him to write richly and variedly. Here, there were the standard strings, oboes, horns and continuo, augmented by flutes, bassoons, violone and theorbo. Two trumpets and timpani proclaimed the moments of ceremony.

Fabio Biondi led exuberantly with the violin. His beat was vigorous, sometimes communicated with flickering hand, sometimes a forceful bow. A sudden lunge in the player’s direction indicated an instrument’s entry; he bent his knees for ‘softer’ and rose on tiptoe for ‘faster’. Sitting close to the orchestra, I could fully appreciate the alertness of the strings – springy and vital, but never rushed. Flutes, oboes and bassoons sounded suitably pastoral, pure and relaxed. Resounding trumpets and vigorous drums were suitably triumphal. All credit to Europa Galanta for producing such an engaging, limpid sound.

Carlos Mena (Ascanio) bore the brunt of the singing – and very fine he was, too. This extended role was originally written for Mozart’s singing teacher, the alto castrato Giovanni Manzuoli. Mena was rich, light and magnificent. Anna Chierichetti (Sylvia) rose to the occasion splendidly, making her exuberant coloratura sound natural and easy. Her emotional aria was intense and moving. Patrizia Biccire (Venus, substituting for Sandrine Piau) and Markus Schäfer (Aceste, priest of Venus) were both impressive, filling their demanding roles with authority, beauty of intonation and phrasing.

The most spectacular singing of the evening, however, came from Sunhae Im (Fauno, a shepherd), the soprano role written for the second castrato. This was high art – sung so superbly, with such technical distinction, that it seemed artless. Sunhae Im received an especially deserved ovation.

This was a delightful evening – an exuberant and colourful start to the Barbican’s “Mostly Mozart” series.

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