Mozart: The First Commandment
21 March 2017, 7.30pm - St John's Smith Square
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.
Thomas Guthrie began his musical training as a treble under George Guest at St John’s College Cambridge. He then returned to Cambridge to read Classics at Trinity before winning a scholarship to study at the RNCM, where prizes include the Fassbaender Award for Lieder, the Schubert Prize, and an ESU scholarship to study with Thomas Allen in Chicago. He continues to enjoy a wide-ranging singing career. In August 2007 he took up a two-year position as Stage Director on the Jette Parker Young Artist Programme at the Royal Opera House, where he directed both in the Linbury Studio Theatre and on the main stage. His productions include Steffani’s Orlando Generoso (Barber Opera), Hot House, Ludd and Isis (ROH), The Barber of Seville, The Fairy Queen (ETO), The Magic Flute (winner of an Angel Award at the Brighton Festival), King Arthur(Armonico Consort), Der Stein der Weisen, The Impresario, Cimarosa’s Two Barons of Rocca Azzurra (Bampton Classical Opera), Donizetti’sRita, Walton’s The Bear (ROH), and Bach’s St John Passion. His production of Winterreise with puppet and animation has visited festivals in London, St Endellion, Buxton, Oslo and Aldeburgh, and he directed the world premiere of Bootmaker’s Daughter at Brighton Festival with the Cardinall’s Musick in 2008.
Ian Page is the founder, conductor and artistic director of Classical Opera. He began his musical education as a chorister at Westminster Abbey, and studied English Literature at the University of York before completing his studies at the Royal Academy of Music in London. At the start of his career he worked on the music staff at Scottish Opera, Opera Factory, Drottningholm and Glyndebourne, working with such conductors as Sir Alexander Gibson, Nicholas McGegan, Mark Wigglesworth, Ivor Bolton and Sir Charles Mackerras.
With Classical Opera he has conducted most of Mozart’s early operas, including the world premières of the “original” version of Mitridate, re di Ponto and a new completion of Zaide, as well as Le nozze di Figaro, Così fan tutte and La clemenza di Tito. He has also conducted the UK premières of Gluck’s La clemenza di Tito and Telemann’s Orpheus, and the first new staging for 250 years of Johann Christian Bach’s Adriano in Siria. In 2009 he made his Royal Opera House début conducting Arne’s Artaxerxes at the Linbury Studio Theatre, and his studio recording of the work was released in 2011 on Linn Records.
He also devised and conducted Classical Opera’s recordings of ‘The A-Z of Mozart Opera’ (Signum Classics) and ‘Blessed Spirit – a Gluck retrospective’ (Wigmore Hall Live), both of which were selected for Gramophone magazine’s annual Critic’s Choice, and he recently embarked on a new complete cycle of Mozart opera recordings with Classical Opera.
The Orchestra of Classical Opera
The Orchestra of Classical Opera plays on period-instruments, and comprises some of the leading players in their field.
The orchestra, which varies in size from 12 to 50 depending on repertoire and venue, has won consistently high praise from public and critics alike, and performs symphonies and concertos as well as operas.
18th century instruments are generally far more exposed and difficult to play than their modern counterparts, but they bring a thrilling vibrancy and immediacy to the music. This is particularly true of vocal repertoire, where the orchestra provide a dynamic subtext and often become an extra actor in the drama.
Alessandro is a graduate of the Guildhall School of Music & Drama Postgraduate Vocal Studies course studying with Iris Dell’Acqua. He read Modern and Medieval Languages (Italian and German) at Cambridge University, where he was choral scholar in Clare College Chapel Choir. In April 2016 he was awarded joint first prize at the Kathleen Ferrier awards at the Wigmore Hall in London.
Sam Furness (tenor) studied at the Royal Academy of Music, London, where he won the prestigious Royal Academy of Music Club Prize in 2012. His past roles include the title role of Les contes d’Hoffmann for English Touring Opera, Quint and the Prologue (The Turn of the Screw) for Northern Ireland Opera, Baron Lummer (Intermezzo) and Jaquino (Fidelio) for Garsington Opera, Joe (La fanciulla del West) for English National Opera, the title role in Albert Herring for Opera Holland Park, for a new production at the Théâtre du Capitole Toulouse, and for the Opera di Firenze, Florence, Steva (Jenůfa) for Scottish Opera, Tamino (Die Zauberflöte) for Turku Music Festival, and Novice (Billy Budd) for Teatro Municipal, Santiago.
Helen Sherman studied at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and the Royal Northern College of Music, where she was the first student to receive the International Artists Diploma in opera. For Classical Opera, Helen has sung the role of Sesto in Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito and performed in our Mozart in London festival at Milton Court, and she has recently been named an Associate Artist. In 2011, Helen represented Australia at the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition and in 2012 she was awarded Australian Music Association prizes at the Royal Overseas League Music competition in London. Previous operatic roles include Aurelio (L’assedio di Calais) and Dorabella (Così fan tutte) for English Touring Opera, Donna Elvira (Don Giovanni) for Mid Wales Opera, Suzuki (Madama Butterfly) and Governess (The Queen of Spades) for Grange Park Opera.
Gemma Summerfield is studying at the Royal College of Music’s International Opera School, having graduated from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland with a First Class Honours degree and gained a Masters in Performance at the RCM. She won First Prize and the Loveday Song Prize at the 2015 Kathleen Ferrier Awards. Her previous awards have included The Cuthbert Smith Prize in the Lies Askonas Competition 2014, The Governors’ Recital Prize for Voice 2013, The Norma Grieg Prize for French Song 2013 and the Jean Highgate Scholarship for Singing 2011. Her opera roles have included Erste Dame (Die Zauberflöte) at the RCM and Annina (La traviata) for the Rye Arts Festival.
Rebecca Bottone became an inaugural Associate Artist of Classical Opera in 2006. Her appearances with the company have included Sabina (Adriano in Siria), Sifare (Mitridate, re di Ponto), Servilia (Gluck’s La clemenza di Tito), Melia (Apollo et Hyacinthus), Despina (Così fan tutte), Elisa (Il re pastore) and Semira (Artaxerxes), as well as numerous concerts at Wigmore Hall and Kings Place. She can also be heard on our recordings of Artaxerxes and ‘The A-Z of Mozart Opera’.
Other roles include Blonde (Die Entführung aus dem Serail) for the Aix-en-Provence Festival and Scottish Opera, First Innocent (world premiére of Birtwistle’s The Minotaur), Maid (Ades’ Powder Her Face) and First Niece (Peter Grimes) at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Cricket and Parrott (world premiére of Dove’s Pinocchio) for Opera North and Tytania (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) for Garsington Opera.