Classical Opera presents a rare new production of Mozart’s first stage work, composed when he was just eleven years old. Mozart’s score represents the first part of a three-part sacred drama which was performed in Salzburg in 1767, but the two remaining parts are lost. The music is full of tender beauty, dynamism and descriptive flair, and the young composer’s innate understanding and sympathy for the human condition already shine through.
This production will be directed by Thomas Guthrie, who last collaborated with the company on its acclaimed production of J. C. Bach’s Adriano in Siria, and is sung in Nigel Lewis’ irreverently witty and virtuosic English translation.
As a young drifter sleeps off his latest bout of hedonism, the Spirit of Christianity pleads with Justice and Compassion to save his soul and help him find deeper meaning in his life.
Artistic director Ian Page looks forward to our new production of The First Commandment:
Rehearsals are now well under way for our new production of Mozart’s first stage work, The First Commandment (or to give its original German title Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots). Rehearsals are of course the most critical and crucial part of the process, but preparations have been in progress for well over a year. I am delighted to be working again with Thomas Guthrie, who assisted on the 2009 ROH production of Arne’s Artaxerxes and who directed our 2015 production of J. C. Bach’s Adriano in Siria, and our work is the result of several years of ongoing conversations about opera and the best and most rewarding ways to present 18th-century opera to modern-day audiences. At the centre of these discussions lies a commitment to clear, compelling story-telling and to enabling audiences to draw their own reflections, insights and inspiration for themselves rather than having a ‘message’ rammed down their throats.
Decisions about what the production will look like, where it will be set and how the characters will be portrayed are often developed surprisingly late in the process, after lengthy and detailed exploration and discussion of the text, the music and the background to the work’s original creation. In all our discussions, our decision-making has sought to steer a helpful and intelligent path between the conditions, expectations and environment in which the work was first conceived and how we can best serve not only the piece but also the modern-day audiences who come to see and hear it.
Research and knowledge of the performance practice of Mozart’s day, and indeed a consideration of what he and his colleagues sought to achieve through the work, play a significant role, but so too do far more contemporary influences. The long and wide-ranging list of seemingly random models and parallels that we have drawn on during our discussions and rehearsals include a little-known Monty Python song, the films Withnail & I and A Matter of Life and Death, the award-winning BBC TV comedy series Rev, and a wonderfully inventive novel called The Emperor’s Babe, by Bernadine Evaristo, which very successfully combines a specific historical setting with witty and colourful contemporary language.
So what can audiences expect from our production of The First Commandment? The music is beautiful – and the fact than Mozart was eleven when he wrote it has scarcely been mentioned at all during rehearsals. Nigel Lewis’ English translation, first created for our very different 2007 production at Wilton’s Music Hall, is gloriously funny and clever, and would be well worth hearing even as a play-reading without any of Mozart’s music. The production itself will be set in a garden in the 18th century – not least because this is what the libretto prescribes – but will be considerably more entertaining than this might initially sound! And the singing will be wonderful. The cast features two outstanding young tenors, Sam Furness and Alessandro Fisher, who are both making their company débuts, and the allegorical roles of Justice and Compassion are played by Associate Artists Helen Sherman and Gemma Summerfield, while Rebecca Bottone, one of our inaugural Associate Artists back in 2006, makes a very welcome return as the Spirit of Worldliness. I can think of no better way to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s first stage work, and very much hope that you will be able to join us in the particularly apt setting of St John’s Smith Square.