Coin du Roi, Italy’s new early opera group, presented their second production in Palazzo Litta’s intimate theatre in the centre of Milan. Their choice was to stage Mozart’s first opera, Apollo et Hyacinthus, written when he was just 11 years old. Saying ‘just’ maybe is not appropriate in Mozart’s case as the work’s Köchel number is 38, meaning that he’d written 37 pieces before this opera, including his first symphony written in London when he was eight!
He wrote Apollo et Hyacinthus in Latin. Mozart had a passion for the language, and the first extant letter in his hand (written two years after this opera) is about Latin. The Coin du Roi’s Musical Director, Christian Frattima, has considered the fact that the Latin Mozart knew was the one spoken in Germanic countries, very different to that found in Italy, a country that the pre-teen Mozart had not yet visited. Frattima’s decision for this production was to try and emulate the sounds of that variation of Latin – Latin with a German accent – which mirrors some of the experiments in performing Shakespeare with 16th century pronunciation.
Of course, when Mozart did finally come to Italy, he was smitten. He wrote to his father:
In Italy one can acquire more honour and credit with an opera than with a hundred concerts in Germany, and I am the happier because I can compose, which, after all, is my one joy and passion…. I am beside myself as soon as I hear anybody talk about an opera, sit in a theatre or hear singing.
And again to his father (who want to go to Paris):
I beg of you do your best that we may go to Italy. You know my greatest longing to write operas…. Do not forget my wish to write operas! I am envious of every man who composes one; I could almost weep from chagrin whenever I hear or see an aria. But Italian, not German; seria not buffa.
There’s nothing buffa about Apollo et Hyacinthus! Murder, lighting bolts, Greek gods and a killer-discus.
The best thing about Coin du Roi’s production is Christian Frattima’s conducting of the Coin du Roi orchestra who, for an ad hoc group, play surprisingly well together which, as we know from the playing of some of Milan’s better-known ensembles, is no mean feat! Frattima draws out a great range of contrast and colours from his players and isn’t afraid of allowing silences to punctuate the musical flow.
Of the singers, Elina Shimkus shines out with her secure and bright soprano. As Melia, she grieves over the death of brother Hyacinthus, accidently killed by Apollo’s discus, and shares a touching duet with tenor Graziano Schiavone who plays her father, Oebalus the king. Apollo, played by countertenor Alessandro Giangrande, is so moved by their duet that he turns the boy’s body into the hyacinth flower.
Shimkus showed a naturalness on stage which was just as well as the director, Alessio Pizzech, had her walking around in her knickers most of the time. He also staged some embarrassed and embarrassing fumbling between Vilija Mikštaitė’s Hyacinthus and Valeria Girardello’s Zephyrus, like two lesbians on an awkward first date… though their characters were male. Anyway, gender confusion aside, Pizzech’s direction was the sort that has singers turn their backs on the audience as soon as they’ve nothing to sing and do a bit of pacing around the set.
The set itself was simple and functional by Davide Amadei and effective when lit dramatically, though less successful when brightly light from the front. His “fashion sportswear” costumes made the stage look like a changing room during Wimbledon fortnight and, with everyone dressed in white, they led to even more confusion as to who was who. The white nylon Carnival wigs didn’t do anyone any favours.
Coin du Roi seem to be moving along the right road and are obviously having to work within a tight budget, so certain weaknesses in the design can be forgiven… however, a director’s advice to his singers doesn’t have budget constraints though, maybe there, time was short. Musically, things are much more interesting and Frattima seems to know what he wants and his approach – as with the company’s attention to its look, from web-design to its theatre personnel – is serious and disciplined, and suggests a bright future.