Mozart was barely sixteen when he wrote Lucio Silla to open the Carnival in Milan in 1772.  The opera seria (his second—he’d written Mitridate for the same occasion two years earlier) was a great hit, given a remarkable 26 performances that season. How many full-length operas have matched that, in Milan or anywhere else? (Le nozze di Figaro would have nine performances in its initial run.) 

Silla is unquestionably Mozart’s best early opera, those composed before his “mature” period began with Idomeneo. But it was quickly forgotten (by Mozart and by everyone else—J.C. Bach later set the same libretto, and that intrigued Mozart) until its first modern revival, in 1929. Many fine scores of that era are never revived at all because the composer isn’t even Mozart.

Silla is a worthy score, with a bubbling overture, elaborate arias of contrasting emotion and melodies that pre-echo Seraglio, solos set within a ritual chorale, an exciting trio and some fascinating brass-and-wind effects.

The opera has just been given two performances, semi-staged, Friday night and Sunday afternoon, by the Conservatory of Music of Brooklyn College. This institution appears determined to compete with the grand Manhattan conservatories that present out-of-the-way opera.

Such programs, whatever they do for their students in the way of hands-on stage experience, achieve two things for an audience: they display young voices in training whom we can later say we heard Back When, and they revive obscure but worthy scores. By me, the more obscure the better.

Brooklyn has (they told me) just completed a new home, Taw Hall, with a fine new theater, but that theater has not yet opened and no one seemed sure when it would. The Conservatory presented Lucio Silla, however,and, this coming Wednesday, Honegger’s psalmic oratorio King David (with the great Mignon Dunn as the Witch of Endor) in West Quad, a modern building on the south side of the campus, closer to the Q train than the 2 and 5.

The voices on Friday night’s Lucio Silla were all very attractive and well schooled in the galant style, but they were clearly voices under construction, not yet professional contenders. Probably because the program has no tenor capable of bravura ornamentation (I’m guessing), the title role of the opera was transposed for a mezzo soprano.

The castrato role of Cecilio was also given to a female mezzo and the basso role of Aufidio was eliminated (he usually is), so the result was a certain sameness of timbre, but in a room without an actual stage, the individual qualities of each of the ladies were persuasively felt.

The jolly overture and many B-sections and da capo repeats were omitted, but this meant the semi-staged show moved rapidly and, at such close quarters (with huge surtitles) the relationships and actions were clear. I had not heard the opera in 27 years (since a Ponnelle staging in Vienna with Gruberova), and there was more than enough here to remind me what a lively, worthy score it is.

The aristocratic Roman dictator, Lucius Sulla, was notorious for bloodthirst towards opponents and, having laid the republic at his feet, for getting bored with power and retiring to the country. (To situate you in time, his chief opponent, the populist Marius, was married to Julius Caesar’s aunt.)

From these few facts, it was easy for a librettist to extract a moral fable: Silla [sic] has a passion for Giunia, widow of one of his bitter enemies, Cecilio. Naturally (being Roman), she defies his lust. Naturally (this being a classical opera), her husband isn’t really dead. Silla is very angry about all this, and also about his sister, Celia, being in love with another conspirator, Cinna, but the tyrant is persuaded to change his mindfor a happy ending.

The original Giunia was de Amicis, a reigning prima donna of the day, and Mozart did her proud, with grand, defiant arias, but he seems to have enjoyed the pointed coloratura of Celia and gave her opportunities to show it off. The tenor became ill, however, and the only replacement they could find was a mediocre church singer with no stage experience.

Even at sixteen, Mozart could handle this: He cut the man’s arias from four to two and made them pretty simple. Harnoncourt and Minkowski, in producing the opera, sometimes inserted another aria for him, and this was done at Brooklyn as well. I suspect the intruder came from J.C. Bach’s version, which would be in the proper style. In any case, I wasn’t sure which one it was, a good sign.

Shira Ben David sang Giunia and, after a slow start, demonstrated in her ornate denunciations and mournful reflections a soprano of excellent range and intonation, with the swelling of notes to express a sigh that Mozart surely hoped for. Tamara Navoth, her Cecilio, produced a lustrous sound that blended well in duets.

Sophia Mortensen, given Silla’s transposed arias, produced angry, even petulant phrases but not overelaborate ones. It took her a few scenes to find herself, but overturning chairs in a vengeful fury seemed to focus her. All three of these singers were cooking by the time of their angry trio concluding Act II, and we were on the edge of our seats.

Paige Madison took some time to find the proper poise for the flighty coloratura Mozart crammed into the role of Celia, and her lovely high soprano would, I think, be happier with a more lyric role like Pamina. Christina Kershaw, in the castrato role of Cinna, produced the most satisfactory singing among five good voices, always on pitch and on target, incisive and direct. Diction was impressive throughout the performance.

The Conservatory Orchestra and the Conservatory Singers (director Malcolm Merriweather) provided a clear, rarely ragged background to the story under the speedy direction of George Rothman. I presume a larger choral contingent will appear for King David.

The necessarily simple staging (chairs overturned in fits of rage; anachronistic crucifixes so we’d know someone was dead or thought to be; red pistols aimed at this person or that to clarify changing relationships) made this a user-friendly concert opera, and were presumably the work of the program’s director, Matthew Patrick Morris. I wish his program further successful repertory explorations in their new home.