Apollo et Hyacinthus is little less than a miracle. The first of two operas which Mozart wrote at the age of 11 in 1767, it was already his second stage work, taking the broadest sense of that term, as he had already composed the sacred play Die Schudigkeit des ersten Gebots.
It was written as a didactic work for the grammar school in Salzburg attached to the university, but Ian Page and The Mozartists rightly invest the work with a more overtly dramatic vigour, as suits the sequence of arias which are clearly influenced by Italian opera. After the jaunty Intrada or Overture, the ensemble provides lithe and often sprightly support to the singers, whilst the recitatives are impelled by the warmly resonant attack by the cello (with spread chords, whose justification is explained in the liner notes) which is often more to the fore than the harpsichord.
The roles in this mythological story, adapted from an episode in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, are well characterised by the singers. Christopher Ainslie is a wily sounding Zephyrus whose jealousy of Apollo’s friendship with Hyacinthus and love for the latter’s sister Melia causes the tragedy at the heart of the narrative. Having killed Hyacinthus and blamed Apollo for the wicked deed, speciously lustrous strings introduce his aria ‘En! Duos conspicis’, in which his disingenuous question to Melia “whom would you choose?” (i.e. him or Apollo as her spouse) is then tellingly pointed up by Page through slowing down on its probing harmonies.
Sophie Bevan’s Hyacinthus is, perhaps surprisingly, heroic or even imperious in musical demeanour, availing herself of some powerful vocal projection in her aria ‘Saepe terrent Numina’, although admittedly the character has comparatively little music, given his untimely demise halfway through the drama, and so understandably needs to make an impression.
Lawrence Zazzo produces a florid tone as Apollo, though also expressing some vulnerability and anxiety, as he seeks refuge in Oebalus’s kingdom from the wrath of Jupiter. Before Melia realises the truth of Zephyrus’s deception, her rancorous duet with Apollo is delivered with a tense dynamism which drives the action forwards, perhaps a touch more so than in her first appearance for the virtuosic aria ‘Laetari, iocari’ where Klara Ek could sing with more open-mouthed joy as her vowels sound somewhat closed, and Page could have given just a little greater thrust to its pace. Andrew Kennedy rounds out the cast with a confident, assured interpretation of King Oebalus, the father of Hyacinthus and Melia, expressing yearning grief for his son in his delectable duet with Melia ‘Natus cadit, atque Deus’, and flustered but supple rage at Zephyrus’s crime in the ship-at-sea metaphor aria ‘Ut navis in aequore luxuriante’.
This re-release of a recording from 2011 stands as a solid choice for this work as an historically informed account, taking its place alongside Page’s ongoing recorded cycle of the composer’s operas, and his epic Mozart 250 project with The Mozartists. The more leisurely – though still very emotionally wrought – interpretation by Leopold Hager and the Mozarteum Orchestra, Salzburg (included in Philips’s Complete Mozart Edition) will remain the preference for listeners more comfortable with modern instruments and fuller-voiced singers.