Die Schuldigkeit des Ersten Gebots (The Obligation of the First Commandment) is the 11-year-old Mozart’s first dramatic composition. It’s a "sacred Singspiel", written for the Archbishop of Salzburg for Lent 1767, during which season secular performances were outlawed. It presents a series of allegorical figures who act out the earthly dilemmas of the Christian and present edifying solutions. It’s actually only the first part of a three-part work: the others, written by Michael Haydn and Anton Adlgasser, have not survived. It’s a juvenile work, of course, but many far older composers would have been pleased to have written it, and it’s remarkable how much of Mozart’s skill for word-painting and human empathy is already apparent. You can hear in the orchestra the pacing of the Devil as a lion in Mercy’s Ein ergrimmter Löwe brüllet, and there is great sympathy for the soul’s plight in Christian’s Jener Donnerworte Kraft, complete with the sound of the Last Trumpet.
It is a bold move indeed for Ian Page and Classical Opera to choose this piece as the first part of their series of recordings of the composer’s complete operas for Signum Classics. After all, it’s a long way from the composer’s more celebrated works – most Mozart-lovers probably won’t even have heard of it – and arguably it’s not even an opera. So bravo to Ian Page for choosing it as part one. It’s a sign of his commitment to the composer’s repertoire – all of it – and it also allows him to move into territory that has been only very rarely recorded before. Luckily for us, he brings some high profile soloists with him on his journey. Andrew Kennedy, in particular, is a wonderful choice of singer to play the Spirit of Christianity. His first aria, Mit Jammer muss ich schauen, is full of honeyed tone whose mellifluousness seems to belie the sorrow of which the aria speaks, but is nevertheless welcome for all that. His interactions with the other characters are always impeccably judged, and his aria Manches Übel will zuweilen strikes a fatherly tone that is actually rather winning.
The Half-Hearted Christian himself is sung by Allan Clayton. His voice is beautiful, but more earthy than Kennedy’s, so that the two are very well contrasted, and he sings Jener Donnerworte Kraft with just the right combination of beauty and apprehension. As Divine Mercy, Sarah Fox is delectably and appropriately sweet. By (equally appropriate) contrast, Cora Burggraaf is a little more insistent as Divine Justice. While Mercy’s first aria pleads for help for the Christian, Justice’s summons him to wakefulness to fight the good fight, and Burggraaf’s rather paler voice makes a good contrast with Fox’s. Sophie Bevan’s voice is beautifully charming as The Spirit of Worldliness. Her aria extolling the benefits of enjoying yourself is dangerously alluring, and she sings it with such tripping appeal as to sound coquettish. Her coloratura at the end is fantastic, and her second aria, where she makes fun of Christianity, is a delightful mixture of contempt and light-hearted mockery.
I have to say that, after listening to this recording of such a rarity, I began to wonder whether this work has ever had a finer performance than this one. We’ll never know what Mozart’s original team sounded like, but he’d have been lucky to have assembled a team as skilful, well balanced and neatly contrasted as this one. It may not be Mozart’s finest work, nor contain his best music, but it’s well worth hearing and, as I said above, it’s testimony to Page’s intent for this series that he invests so much of himself into getting even this piece right.