In the Shadows: Lucio Silla at La Monnaie / De Munt

Mozart – Lucio Silla

Lucio Silla – Jeremy Ovenden
Giunia – Lenneke Ruiten
Cecilio – Anna Bonitatibus
Lucio Cinna – Simona Šaturová
Celia – Ilse Eerens
Aufidio – Carlo Allemano

Chœurs de la Monnaie, Symfonieorkest van de Munt / Antonello Manacorda.
Stage director – Tobias Kratzer

De Munt/La Monnaie, Brussels, Belgium.  Sunday, October 29th, 2017.

Following a period of working in a temporary tent theatre in Molenbeek, La Monnaie/De Munt is back at its downtown Brussels home, now looking better than ever.  Their latest new production is a staging by Tobias Kratzer of the sixteen year-old Mozart’s Lucio Silla.  This is a work undergoing something of a small revival right now, with another new production also taking place in Madrid currently.

Jeremy Ovenden & Lenneke Ruiten. Photo: © Bernd Uhlig

Kratzer and his creative team give us a psychological thriller.  Set in a dictator’s hideout, deep among the pines, the revolving stage shows the action from multiple aspects.  What we see is an intelligent meditation on the corruption of power and the lack of humanity engendered by that power.  Kratzer also plays around with the idea of watching and being watched.  He sets the tone at the start with a video sequence showing leaders (JFK, Putin, Chaplin’s Great Dictator) but even here there are hints of what is to come with VHS cassettes appearing in the film being labelled and organized.  As the evening progresses, we realize that the captive Giunia is being watched in her captivity by Silla.  We see her shaving her legs, filmed and magnified across the stage, and as she does so, she cuts her leg.  This is harrowing to watch for us (several audience members audibly gasped) but for Silla, this obsession with blood is something that he lives from – we see him earlier playing with a knife, cutting himself and sipping blood from a cup.  It sounds heavy-handed on paper, but it never feels it.  This is also a work that lives in the shadows and the stage environment and highly effective set (Rainer Sellmaier) reflect that.  The milieu outside of the house is dark, where the chorus as zombies emerge from the pines and a hound (the exceptionally well behaved Indy) runs around the stage, taunting Cecilio as he dares to enter Silla’s estate.

Simona Šaturová & Jeremy Ovenden. Photo: © Bernd Uhlig

So often opera seria can feel like a sequence of numbers that serve only to highlight the virtuosic capacities of the principals and can seem somewhat anti-dramatic.  What Kratzer does is something really quite special – he transforms the work into a very convincing narrative that makes the arias propel the drama along with irresistible force.  This is achieved partly through action – during the arias we see other characters going around their business, Silla smoking while Cecilio sings ‘il tenero momento’ for instance – but also by giving his characters room to express and grow.  At the end of the evening we have a sense of having spent three and a half hours with a group of very familiar and defined characters.  There is never any sense of the stage action during the arias ever undermining individual performances (unlike Steier’s Troyens in Dresden last week, for example) instead, it enhances them.  Cecilio is an intellectual revolutionary, Cinna a grey conspirator in a suit, Giunia is a strong woman who refused to comply despite unspeakable treatment from Silla, and Celia escapes the horror around her by playing with dolls.

Simona Šaturová & Ilse Eerens. Photo: © Bernd Uhlig

Kratzer, along with Jeremy Ovenden’s Silla, also brings out the full journey of Silla’s character – making the development from dictator to remorse absolutely believable.  In Act 3 as Cinna sings of Jove’s revenge, ‘De più superbi il core’, we see Silla on stage re-watching his videos, confronted by his abuse of Giunia.  As he does so, we see things that weren’t previously played out on stage, Silla mistreating Giunia by slapping and raping her.  The impact of this is devastating, the horror of what Silla did being revealed to us (and to him) in full grisly detail.  Within this awfulness, Ovenden fully manifests physically the shame and disgust that Silla feels, as he realizes what he has done to others, thereby giving us a full insight into his mental journey.  Yet, there was no happy end here – these are characters who are traumatized and for whom life will never be the same again.  I found it a deeply intelligent and psychologically insightful piece of theatre.

Lenneke Ruiten. Photo: © Bernd Uhlig

What we saw on stage also found its echo in the pit thanks to Antonello Manacorda’s superb conducting.  He clearly passionately believes in this piece and gave us an interpretation just as gripping as Kratzer’s staging.  Right from the opening measures with raspy natural brass, timpani struck with hard sticks and attack sharp as the knife Silla played with, we knew we would be in for an exceptional experience.  There was an innate sense of physical propulsion emanating from the pit that I found irresistible and he phrased the music lovingly.  He was also a wonderfully sensitive accompanist to his singers, leading them, supporting them and allowing them to work their magic through judicious use of ornamentation.  The band played well for him with the strings playing with minimal vibrato.  The chorus, apart from some slightly unfocused tone in the sopranos, sang with tight ensemble and threw themselves into playing the zombies emerging from the wood.

Jeremy Ovenden, Simona Šaturová & Ilse Eerens.  Photo: © Bernd Uhlig

Ovenden gave us a Silla of sappy tone, good agility and immaculate diction.  His isn’t the most interesting music in the opera but he dispatched what he had with stylistic finesse.  His acting was always gripping to watch.  There was perhaps a limited range of tonal colours but his singing was always musical.  Lenneke Ruiten’s copper toned soprano can be something of an acquired taste with a tendency to curdle in places.  She attacked her fiendishly virtuosic Act 2 number ‘ah se il crudel periglio’ with fearless aplomb, although with hints that the voice perhaps ideally lacks the metal required, the tone slightly soft grained although this is a fiendishly difficult role.  She is however a theatrical livewire with a willingness to go well above the stave in her da capos.  Ruiten gave us a daring use of dynamics, unafraid to pull the tone right back and always sang off the text.

Anna Bonitatibus, Jeremy Ovenden & Lenneke Ruiten.
Photo: © Bernd Uhlig

A singer who always makes the text live is Anna Bonitatibus and once again, that magic that happens when she sings Mozart was present.  Her ‘tenero momento’ was glorious – she made the union of text, notes and acting live.  The sheer joy and musicality in her singing is something very rare and very special.  The artistry and intelligence behind all she does was ever present, nowhere more so than in a ‘ah se a morir mi chiama’, here moved to Act 3, where she dared to sing exceptionally quietly, yet filled it with so much expression and feeling that time just seemed to stand still.  Simona Šaturová gave us a Cinna with pearly tone and a good line but felt perhaps somewhat anonymous in expression although this was at one with Kratzer’s conception of this character who operates in the shadows.  I was especially impressed by Ilse Eerens, a singer new to me, as Celia.  Hers is a crystalline soprano with a liquid legato and excellent musical instincts.  She demonstrated ease on top and some very elegant staccati in her Act 2 ‘quando sugl’arsi campi’.  Carlo Allemano’s Aufidio demonstrated a gravity-defying handling of the tessitura but the florid writing felt somewhat aspirated.

Jeremy Ovenden & Carlo Allemano. Photo: © Bernd Uhlig

With Aufidio, and to a lesser extent with Cinna, it felt that we were never sure whether these were real characters compared to the rest of the cast, Aufidio’s costume in particular suggesting that he may not be of this world.  This was a staging that made us as audience members reflect on the nature of reality and surveillance.   It was a psychologically insightful reading of the work, something that might have been written in 1772 and set in ancient Rome, but felt completely contemporary and relevant.  There was so much insight to Kratzer’s direction, so many details that came from creating these fully-rounded flesh and blood characters.  The entire cast was at one with this vision creating gripping music theatre that was both musically and dramatically completely convincing.  This was a superb afternoon in the theatre, one that proved that this work is definitely worthy of revival, especially with performances as strong and insightful as we had today.

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  1. Fortunate enough to see the legendary Chereau production that preceded this one, the single greatest Mozart staging I’ve ever seen. Some of it is available on youtube, I think you check it out.

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