APOLLO ET HYACINTHUS
Town Hall, Birmingham, Saturday 10th June, 2017
A marvellous evening of Mozart kicks off with the Symphony in G major (K45a), the ‘Lambach’, a chocolate box of a piece, sweet and soft-centred with the occasional note of dark-but-never-bitterness. Classical Opera’s ongoing and long-term project to play out Mozart’s work in chronological order over decades is as laudable as it is ambitious. The playing here is smooth under the baton of Ian Page, easing us in before the drama of the evening’s programme begins in earnest.
Up next is Grabmusik, a trio of lieder set at Christ’s tomb. The mighty baritone Benjamin Appl is the ‘Soul’ getting off to a rousing start with plenty of sturm und drang, calling down thunder and lightning on the perpetrators. Appl storms it, in fact. He is a compelling presence, as facially expressive as he is vocally – and that voice, rich and versatile, is both a balm for the mind and a prod to the emotions. The Soul is answered by the ‘Angel’ – Gemma Summerfield’s searing, soaring soprano – before the two sing together, having taken us the full gamut of emotions from anger to forgiveness.
I need an interval drink after that!
Mozart had reached the grand old age of eleven when he penned his first opera – what took him so long, the slacker? – and it’s a treat to hear it get an airing this evening. The plot is basically a love triangle: Zephyrus loves the boy Hyacinthus but so does the god Apollo. Zephyrus fingers Apollo for the death of Hyacinthus, but the boy’s dying words reveal the truth. Meanwhile, Oebalus is hoping to marry his daughter Melia to the god – but the murder of his son casts a shadow over that arrangement.
Stripped to the bare essentials, the staging brings the music to the fore. Standing in a row like actors in a radio drama, the cast does not stint in expressive delivery. It is the human emotions of this mythological scenario that matter – and that is the heart of Mozart’s genius, whether it’s Christianity as in the Grabmusik, or older mythology, it is the humanity of the situation that touches us. The prayer to Apollo, where the cast of five is joined by Appl as the Priest, is as stirring and lovely as any of Mozart’s pieces to the Christian God. The man could dramatize anything.
Benjamin Hulett is marvellous as King Oebalus, despite being rooted to the spot behind his music stand. Similarly, Klara Ek’s Melia gives us all the delighted anticipation of a young woman before her wedding to a celebrity. Gemma Summerfield’s Hyancinthus is blooming great (ha ha) and her dying words, so simply and effectively scored by Mozart, are extremely moving. Countertenor James Hall is the villainous Zephyrus, while another countertenor Tim Mead makes a regal and dignified Apollo. When all five sing together, I miss the baritone undertones of Appl – Mozart was writing for a cast of schoolboy performers, after all.
It’s a lovely piece in which each character gets an aria, a moment to shine, a moment to explore their emotional state. They are human beings in a fantastical situation and that’s what speaks to us across the centuries.