Lucio Silla in Brussels

When you have enjoyed an excellent performance of a work and circumstances enable you to see it again soon after in a different production, there is a risk that your second encounter will be disappointing. This summer I had been mightily impressed by Buxton Festival’s Lucio Silla (see my blog of 21st July). La Monnaie at Brussels has a very good reputation: could it do better with this work?

Clearly the Belgian opera company has the advantage of having more resources at its disposal, most obviously for the engagement of singers; and the quality of the soloists was indeed of an international standard. Outstanding was the Dutch soprano Lenneke Ruiten who had made such an impact as Fiordiligi in the Aix production of Cosi Fan Tutte at Edinburgh (my blog, 28 August 2016). She not only sung the highly ornamented coloratura role of Giunia with assurance and brilliant tone – at this stage of his career Mozart was very fond, perhaps too fond, of vocal display – but she also internalised the dramatic dimension so effectively that her physical and psychological interpretation of a victim of abuse was gripping from beginning to end. Deliberately ineffectual and ungainly in appearance, Anna Bonitatibus as  her fiancé Cecilio was very much at home in early Mozartian musical style. She brought colour to the vocal line and had the confidence, when required, to sing very softly; her last aria was most moving. Ilse Eerens contributed a perky, juvenile Celia, spinning out the trills with aplomb.

The Buxton performance had benefited from a small orchestra which, with its conductor, specialised in baroque music. I was at first resistant to the richer sound emanating from the La Monnaie Orchestra, but was nevertheless won over by conductor Antonello Manacorda’s musical direction, precise but passionate.

What then of the production? At Buxton, Harry Silverstein had most successfully opted for an abstract setting, concentrating on the relationships between the characters with studied movements, constrained to match the music. Tobias Kratzer in Brussels adopted a very different approach. Preferring to give the piece more specific associations, he turned Lucio Silla into a contemporary ruler obsessed with power and violence and with a fetish for knives and blood. The conception worked well, not the least because it had a strong narrative dimension and a decors (designer Rainer Sellmaier) which complemented the drama – a largely featureless house where the ruler and his henchman are ensconced, surrounded by a garden in which human values are to the fore.

But, as can happen when directors fear that audiences will become bored with the opera seria format and its long solo arias, there was far too much gratuitous stage business which impeded musical communication.  The worst example was when videos of rape and physical violence were distractingly displayed while the soloists vainly attempted to retain the spectators’ attention. Yet another example, I fear, of a German Regisseur overegging the pudding.