Classical Opera presents a rare fully-staged production of Mozart’s first dramatic work, The First Commandment (Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots), a witty and entertaining highlight in the third year of MOZART 250, the company’s ongoing 27-year chronological journey through Mozart’s life, works and influences under conductor and artistic director Ian Page.
Written when he was just 11 years old, The First Commandment offers a fascinating insight into the genesis and development of a composer who would go on to become one of history’s great opera composers.
St John’s Smith Square will be transformed over two consecutive nights with full staging, lighting and costumes. 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 sung in Nigel Lewis’ humorous English translation.
In spite of its title, The First Commandment is not an overtly religious work but unfolds rather like a musical mystery play, following the story of a young drifter who sleeps off his latest bout of hedonism, as the Spirit of Christianity pleads with Justice and Compassion to save his soul and help him find deeper meaning in his life. While Mozart composed the first part, the second and third parts were contributed by Michael Haydn and Anton Adlgasser respectively but have not survived, and so the audience are left not knowing who wins in the end.
These characters anticipate some of Mozart’s most famous operatic creations, with Worldly Spirit an early prototype for Despina, and Mozart’s preoccupation with themes of damnation and redemption would reach full maturity twenty years later in one of his best-known operas, Don Giovanni.
The young Mozart also demonstrates his ability to provide varying textures and colourful instrumental timbres through his orchestration – with string textures enriched by the use of two separate viola parts and the inclusion of two flutes and a solo alto trombone – and a mature pictorial response to the text, for example depicting “the hungry lion roaring” with snarling horns and scurrying strings.
An exciting young cast assembled by conductor Ian Page comprises Alessandro Fisher (Christian) and Sam Furness (Christian Spirit), who perform with Classical Opera for the first time; Gemma Summerfield (Compassion), who returns after her début with the company this January; and former and current Associate Artists Rebecca Bottone (Worldly Spirit) and Helen Sherman (Justice).
While Classical Opera have previously presented a production of The First Commandment at Wilton’s Music Hall in 2007, and have recorded the work in German in 2013 as part of their ongoing Complete Mozart Opera Cycle on Signum Classics, this new staging seeks to contextualise the work as part of their exploration of 1767 this year.
Ian Page says: “I’m hugely looking forward to returning to this work, especially with the team we have assembled, and Nigel Lewis’ wonderful English translation really helps what might at first sound like a rather worthy and tendentious piece of juvenilia to become a piece of great verve and playfulness. It’s so important to view Mozart’s early works in relation to the music being written by pre-eminent others at the same time, rather than comparing them to the masterpieces of his maturity some twenty years later. In this light we can gain fresh insights into his remarkable development and innate abilities, as well as enjoying these works on their own terms.”
Later in the season, the company’s exploration of 1767 within MOZART 250 continues as period keyboard virtuoso Kristian Bezuidenhout makes his company début at Wigmore Hall on 16 May playing Mozart’s first four keyboard concertos alongside arias performed by Classical Opera’s new Associate Artist Soraya Mafi, and Thomas Guthrie returns to direct a new production of Mozart’s Apollo et Hyacinthus at St John’s Smith Square on 12 & 13 June, which is also given in a concert performance at Birmingham Town Hall on 10 June.