Classical review: Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots, Wigmore Hall, London

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Mozart, despite his infant brilliance, was not the all-time classical prodigy. As a performer he was beaten to the wire by the English infant phenomenon William Crotch, who gave his first performance at the age of two. And with Saint-Saens composing waltzes at three, Mozart’s compositional start at five looks relatively sedate. Indeed, as Bayan Northcott suggests in his book “The Way We Listen Now”, the boy Mozart’s rigorous training and easy command of the standard genres and musical clichés of the day meant that he was comparatively late in finding his own true voice. The Wigmore performance of an opera he wrote at eleven gave us a chance to test that theory against reality.

But to classify as opera “Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots” – The Duty of the First Commandment – may be stretching things a little. It was commissioned by the Archbishop of Salzburg as a music-drama for Lent, with an improving libretto by a rich burgher who was grandfather to a celebrated soprano for whom Mozart was later to write two of his greatest concert arias. The work was sung by the same cast who premiered his “La finta semplice” two years later, and it was liked enough to get a repeat performance. As its staging would have been rudimentary, Classical Opera Company’s performance might not be so very different.

Under Ian Page’s baton the opening Sinfonia emerged bright and buoyant, if rougher than necessary, after which sopranos Mary Bevan (as Justice) and Sarah Fox (Mercy) engaged in a sanctimonious musical dialogue with tenor Robert Murray (The Spirit of Christianity) about the need to save souls. The allegorical line-up was completed by tenor Allan Clayton (as the Half-hearted Christian) and soprano Ailish Tynan (as the seductive Spirit of Worldliness).

Since the librettist evidently had no feel for drama, the momentum of events was more suggestive of an oratorio than an opera, but Mozart was already thinking like a dramatist, expertly pacing his scenes, and discovering theatrical potential in his frequently banal lines, as Tynan (a born comedienne) and Clayton (with radiant sound and perfect diction) showed time and again. After a while we simply forgot the age of the composer and savoured the pre-echoes of “Cosi fan tutte”, the brilliantly-shaded da capo arias, and the technically-demanding soprano solos suggesting the hand of the master, which allowed his unmistakable voice to shine through. Doubters should check out the associated CD (SIGCD343).

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