Without box office pressures, university music departments and conservatories are ideal venues to hear rare operas. This weekend saw repeated staging of Il Sogno di Scipione (Scipio’s Dream), K.126, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91). Both performances took place in Moeser Auditorium within Hill Hall on the campus of the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.

The fifteen-year-old Mozart was commissioned to set Pietro Metastasio’s libretto to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary the ordination of his patron Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg Sigismund von Schrattenbach who died before the celebration. The text was tweaked to serve his successor Hieronymus Colloredo. In 1735 Metastasio drew upon Somnium Scipionis ex lib. de Republica VI by Cicero (106-43 BC). Mozart’s was the sixth setting of the opera and was composed between April-August 1771 and revised in April 1772. It is believed to have been premiered in May 1772 in the Archbishop’s Palace in Salzburg. It is unclear just how much may have been performed. It may have waited until 1979 when a complete performance was given and recorded at the Salzburg Festival. It finds the composer still finding his style and it has suffered in comparison to his other early operas. The circumstances of its commission straight jacked his options.

Cato’s original text was a résumé of Stoic philosophy about man’s place in the universe which Metastasio turned into a typical baroque allegory. The Roman general Scipio dreams he must choose between two goddesses, Fortuna (Fortune) and Constanza (Steadfastness). The latter shows him the heroes in Elysium including his adopted father (Publio) and his own father (Emilio). They urge Scipio to live a life of virtue. Fortuna presses him to seek fame ignoring its drawbacks. Constanza is more transparent about the life of duty. Emilio draws his son’s attention to the tiny Earth wrapped in clouds of troubles. Publio and Emilio urge him to accept his earthly destiny and to do his duty for Rome. After mildly dramatic expositions from the goddesses, Scipio chooses Constanza much to Fortuna’s stormy displeasure.

Peace Cato and Mestastio, UNC’s staging is no toga romp! Publio is a famous astronaut while Emilio resembles the composer. It is a pajama-sleep over in a brass bed! Mozart’s original called for three tenors, three sopranos, mixed chorus, and orchestra. UNC’s busy, over-the-top staging has an entirely female cast even for chorus and numerous extras: astronauts, and “Bots” serving the goddesses. The libretto is mostly like Mozart’s except for “Carolina’s Palace, “Eno,” and “NASA.” There are thin references to current political turmoil and much more about pollution.

Salzburg’s taste ran toward brilliant, showy de capo arias with lots of repeats. The repeats allowed singers to ornament or play with spectacular passage work. Despite constantly changing stage business during repeats, such as beer keg sized cupcakes, “Bond Girls” in shinny miniskirts, a gaggle of astronauts in shiny space suits, I believe every singer delivered the full number of repeats and none lacked ability to soar stratospherically.

The pajama dressed Scipio was sung solidly by Elizabeth Thompson. Her lower range has a firm mezzo quality but rocketed to her highs with ease. There must be a shortage of foil and balloons and inflatables of all sizes in town, so much went into costumes, sets, and unexpected props! The mercurial and testy goddess Fortuna was sung by soprano Katherine Thompson who lacked nothing in high notes or ability to menace. Soprano Lila Dunn was equally impressive as the goddess of Constancy, matching Fortune in fioritura and managing a long recitative on Ptolemaic acoustics…, the Music of the Spheres.

Mezzo-soprano Julia Holoman bought stage presence in spades as Publio, Scipio’s adopted father (a heroic astronaut), while delivering impressive vocal fireworks. Space helmet aside, as his own father Emilio, mezzosoprano Caroline Collins did indeed look like the 18th century Mozart while matching the cast in fiery vocalism. Mezzo soprano Melody Zhuo brought plenty of vocal weight and sparkle to the role of Licenza, giving a word from our Sponsor! In this staging not the Archbishop Colloredo but Allen Anderson, chairman of the music department was honored!

The wildly inventive stage director/designer was Marc Callahan. Lighting design was by Aimee Comanici while the VERY active light board operator was Barron Northtrup. The many, many lighting changes and effects came off wonderfully. The very high standard of diction was the result of Timothy Sparks inspired efforts.

This production had numerous tie-ins with campus departments. First-year students in Ane MacNeil’s seminar “Music on Stage and Screen” inaugurated their studies at UNC with a semester-long-in-depth study of Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis. Broad concepts, ancient and contemporary were explored. This was closely tied with the Ackland Art Museum.

This opera repeats Sunday afternoon at 3 pm. See our sidebar for details.

Updated 11/20/19 following a reader’s inquiry: Musical coordination was very effective across a very active staging and reflected the careful preparation of music director Qiao Zheng Goh who played the piano accompaniment from a discrete location in the left corner of the stage with good sight lines between props. It was miraculous how it all held together with Goh tucked away in the corner. MacNeil and her MUSC 63 students prepared the supertitles. Samantha Yancy handled publicity.