Teatro La Fenice 2021-22 Review: Apollo et Hyacinthus

Kangmin Justin Kim, Raffaele Pe, Danilo Pastore Lead Delightful Showcase of Mozart Work

By Alan Neilson
(Photo: Michele Crosera)

On May 13th 1767, the students of the Salzburg University Gymnasium premiered the three-act intermezzo “Apollo et Hyacinthus.” The significance of the event was that it was the first performance of an opera composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who was 11 years old at the time. Although its music certainly has much to commend it, dramatically it is less assured, so that nowadays it is rarely performed. Venice’s Teatro La Fenice’s decision to present five stagings during October at the city’s Teatro Malibran is, therefore, indeed a welcome one.

In book 10 of his epic poem “Metamorphoses,” Ovid relates the tale of the god Apollo and his love for the boy Hyacinthus, who was accidentally killed while throwing a discus. Such was his grief that he turned the boy’s body into a red flower, so that his beauty would live on forever. When Rufinus Widl sat down to write a libretto on the subject for the young Mozart, he decided, either through choice or as a result of external pressures, to eliminate its homoerotic element. Instead, he produced a timid text of limited dramatic interest.

The text travelled a long way from the myth as recounted by Ovid. New figures were added in the form of Hyacinthus’ sister, Melia, and his father, Oebalus. The love between Hyacinthus and Apollo was reduced to one of mutual friendship and replaced by a love triangle between Apollo, Melia, and the evil Zephyrus, who is determined to marry Melia at any cost. Zephyrus does appear in other versions of the myth, but as a rival to Apollo for Hyacinthus’ love, not Melia’s. When Hyacinthus is killed, Zephyrus is quick to tell Melia that Apollo is the murderer, in an attempt to turn her against the god she loves. True to form, all ends happily as Hyacinthus reveals with his dying breath that Zephyrus was the murderer. Apollo marries Melia, and Hyacinthus is turned into a flower.

Hardly a faithful retelling of the myth! Moreover, its more complex plot undermines the sensitivity and centrality of the love relationship as it is submerged within the wider context.

Ligorio Restores The Sensuality Of The Original Myth

Unconvinced by Widl’s work, Cecilia Ligorio, the stage director, aimed to “make the original myth resurface,” although not through heavy-handed interference, that would act against the lightness of Mozart’s music or trash Widl’s libretto. As she explained in her program notes, she was “writing/rewriting/overwriting their work theatrically,” which manifested itself in the direction and dramaturgy. Central to her conception was “evoking the sensuality of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” in which Apollo seduces, moves and loves everyone. And everyone loves him.” Thus, the audience was able to glimpse sensual connections through the glances and subtle and bold movements of the characters. Hyacinthus and Apollo’s love for each other is thereby resurrected, and without disrupting Widl’s narrative.

The staging was designed in collaboration with the students of the Accademia di Belle Arti di Venezia, whom she encouraged to find their “own personal version of the Baroque coup de théâtre.” What they actually came up with was a staging which clearly illustrated and supported the narrative and was pleasing on the eye, although also with a smattering of indulgent ideas which made little sense without the program notes. The lighting designs, in particular, were very successful. Not only did they aid in the creation of changing atmospheric effects, but their use of bold colors, like dark blues and reds, helped create aesthetically pleasing scenes.

The costumes were baroque inspired, although certainly not of the period, and were deliberately designed without much coloring, so that when Apollo appears in his red coat, the stage immediately springs to life. It was a well-thought-out idea, which again added to the overall aesthetic effect.

Overthought Ideas

There was, however, a sense that some of the ideas were overthought, so that they fell flat and, on occasions, even irritated, such as having all the students on stage to reveal the changes in the set or to introduce Apollo to the rest of the cast. Admittedly, the moving of letters of the word ‘metamorphoses’ around the stage to form significant words pertaining to the drama, such as “Arte,” although distracting and appearing forced, actually led to a visually pleasing conclusion, with the word ‘metamorphoses’ in large white letters situated across the front of the stage against a blue background.

The overall impression, however, was certainly a positive one. It was a charming presentation, and even when the ideas were not particularly successful, they rarely offended.

Mozart’s score for “Apollo et Hyacinthus” is without doubt a remarkable achievement for an 11-year old boy, but from a purely dramatic perspective, and unsurprisingly so, it still lacks the maturity and skill evident in his later works. This is most notable in the recitatives, which fail to carry the full dramatic content and are a little bland.

Yet, the work’s five arias, two duets and terzetto certainly display the accomplished, if not yet fully matured, voice of a great composer. Some of the melodies are wonderful. The opera’s second duet, “Natus cadit,” for Melia and Oebalus, in particular, would not appear out of place if positioned alongside duets from his later works.

Marchiol’s Dramatically Sensitive Reading  

The musical side of the production was under the direction of Andrea Marchiol, who produced a dramatically sensitive and energetic performance from the Orchestra del Teatro La Fenice. If he occasionally compromised on elegance and delicacy in order to excite the onstage tensions, it was a price worth paying as it successfully strengthened the dramatic impact of the work. Although largely attentive to the needs of the singers, he sometimes allowed the orchestra to dominate, at their expense.

As the opera was written for the youngsters of the gymnasium, it is not surprising that four of the roles were written for adolescent voices.

For this production, they were replaced by three countertenors and a soprano. The three countertenors possessed very different vocal qualities and approaches, which allowed for pleasing combinations of vocal textures.

Three Very Different Countertenors

The role of Hyacinthus was played by Kangmin Justin Kim. He possesses a high-lying countertenor, with a homogeneous timbre and a vibrant, youthful quality, which perfectly captured the optimism and vitality of his character. It is also a very versatile instrument as he demonstrated in his aria “Saepe terrent Numina,” in which he attempts to calm his father by explaining how the gods enjoy playing with human emotions. Indulging in florid coloratura displays, passages of fancy ornamentation, including prodigious leaps, he pushed his voice towards its limits, yet without any loss of control or quality, in what was an emotionally forceful presentation.

Raffaele Pe, playing the role of Apollo, possesses a far more colorful countertenor, which allowed him to bring a greater degree of subtlety to his portrayal. This was particularly evident in his delivery of recitatives, which were sung with close attention given to their meaning. There was little sense of showmanship or artifice in his performance; his focus was always centered on developing an honest portrait of the god. Emotional responses were never overstated but appropriately measured to meet the dramatic context.

His aria “Iam pastor Apollo” allowed him to show off his excellent, intelligently accented phrasing in which coloratura passages and other embellishments were neatly integrated into the rendition, without compromising the dramatic aspect.

Countertenor Danilo Pastore took a very different approach to both Pe and Kim. His preferred style is to idealize his presentation, meaning, that on occasions, he can appear distant from the action. In this instance, however, such an approach worked well. Playing the role of Zephyrus, a dissembling, two-faced individual who hides behind a mask, Pastore’s studied presentation, punctuated by occasional outbursts, was convincing.

His recitatives were well crafted and showed off the pleasing timbre of his voice. However, his aria “Eh! Duos conspicis,” in which Zephyrus attempts to convince Melia to reject Apollo and to marry him, was a little on the conservative side, and would have benefited from better projection.

Strong Cast

Hyacinthus’ father, Oebalus, was parted by tenor Krystian Adam. He put in a strong, passionate performance as his emotions were tossed one way and then another by the events unfolding around him, over which he had no control. His aria “Ut navis in acquore luxuriante,” in which he likens himself to a ship tossed by the waves in a storm, perfectly summed up his situation: following a well-sung passage of recitative, he produced an expressive rendition, full of raging passions, capturing his pain, anger and grief, as he coated his voice in a mixture of emotions, in which his coloratura sounded as if he were almost crying.

Soprano Barbara Massaro made a fine impression with a confident, lively and well-sung performance as Melia. The role presents a number of excellent opportunities, comprising an aria, two duets and a terzetto, for a singer to show off her talents, of which Massaro willingly took advantage. In the aria “Laetari, tocari,” she gave voice to Melia’s joy and excitement with a free-flowing rendition, which took in leaps and trills and lengthy passages of coloratura in her stride, which she underpinned with a fine performance of the duet “Discede crudelis!” in which, this time, she raged at Apollo, accenting and coating the vocal line with anger, as she pushed the voice upwards as her emotions surged.

Meanwhile, Pe created a pleasing vocal contrast with his calmer, level-headed delivery. The duet with Oebalus, “Natus cadit,” the opera’s musical highlight, allowed her to display her thoughtful sensitivity with a gentle, captivating presentation, which was complemented by Adam’s equally sensitive contribution.

Overall, “Apollo et Hyacinthus” is not a standout work, but there is nothing to dislike about it; it is pleasant and has a lot of charm, and the production proved to be a very pleasing experience. The narrative might not contain the most gripping of plots. It moves along with a certain ease and predictability, but at the same time it allows the audience to sit back, relax and enjoy Mozart’s music, which is easy on the ear, if not dramatically strong. Yet, it has its strong moments!


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