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opera review

Opera Atelier’s production of Mozart’s early opera seria Lucio Silla is on at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto.Matthias Baus

It's been a triumph in Salzburg. It's been a triumph at La Scala. And now it's a triumph in Toronto.

On Thursday night, its hometown audience finally got a chance to see what the rest of the world has been raving about for the past couple of years. Opera Atelier's production of Mozart's early opera seria Lucio Silla finally opened to a packed house at the Elgin Theatre. It may be the most perfect production Marshall Pynkoski and Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg have ever created.

Opera Atelier's stylized baroque operas are often beautiful, always creative, as the company attempts to recreate different, older ideas about music, about theatre and about performance. But, from time to time, the style rather than the content of its productions can attract too much attention. Not for Lucio Silla. Everything about Silla worked in tandem to heighten the musical and dramatic essence of Mozart's youthful but spectacular 1772 work. The costumes and sets, outfitted in burnished golds and intense reds, were a perfect backdrop to the exaggerated melodrama of the action (a feature of opera seria, a highly stylized form of musical theatre). The choreography for the show is seamlessly integrated into the action. And Pynkowski's direction, while still steeped in the world of baroque gesture and theatre, seemed so much more spontaneous and effortless, making the inherent drama of the music spark to life so much more intensely.

And the music! What a score the young Mozart wrote for this opera seria, this vanishing art form, in his mid-teens. Coming across Lucio Silla feels like what it must have been to observe a teenaged Roberto Osuna playing on a sandlot in Mexico. There's so much raw talent in evidence, so innocent and exuberant in its youthful joy, so young and fresh. Opera seria is hard for modern audiences to swallow because it is a very formalized form of musical theatre. Its plot is very melodramatic (this one is about a Roman emperor, Lucio Silla, who lusts after the daughter of his enemy, who in turn is in love with a Roman senator, the two lovers eventually being brought together by a chastened Silla, sort of a Clemenza di Tito in embryo). Musically, it consists of recitative (a form of sung dialogue with minimal accompaniment), followed by da capo aria – a form of song in which the first section of the piece is repeated, note for note and word for word, at the end – a dramatic turnoff if ever there was one.

Where the youthful Mozart was so clever in Silla was not so much in the many lovely arias he composed, but in that recitative, many parts of which he has scored not just for simple harpsichord, but for full orchestra, and in which his budding skill as a dramatic composer is in full flower. . Forget the fact that you can hear hints of Don Giovanni, The Magic Flute and Figaro hidden in the score – the music is so brilliant, so beautiful, so dramatic in its own right, it's hard to understand why Silla has lain virtually forgotten for 200-odd years. And Marshall Pynkoski has come up with a clever solution to the inherent anti-dramatic nature of the da capo aria. When the first section of the piece returns, he closes down his set, reduces his lighting, and just presents his singers in an isolated world of pure song. It worked beautifully.

And his singers/actors were, to a person, superb. I could write an entire review of each of their performances. Peggy Kriha Dye was charming at turns, loving at others, fierce when needed, as the banished lover Cecilio. Meghan Lindsay was powerful and effective as Giunia, the object of both Silla's lust and Cecilio's love . Mireille Asselin was saucy and playful as Silla's sister Celia, with more than a hint of incestuous interest in her brother, a pure Pynkoski touch. But perhaps the two most arresting performers in a dream cast were Inga Kalna as Cinna, Cecilio's friend, and Kresimir Spicer, in the title role.

I don't know if there are tickets left for the remaining performances of Lucio Silla, but you owe it to yourself to see it if you can. Whether you think you're interested in opera seria, or baroque opera, or have ever been to an Opera Atelier production, this is an evening which, although long, and sometimes trying on your aesthetic stamina, is well worth experiencing. It's always special in the theatre when everything comes together in such perfect balance, as it has with this Lucio Silla.

Lucio Silla runs until April 16 (