In December 2023, I went to the Bockenheimer Depot and saw the first Frankfurt performance (ever) of Mozart’s Ascanio in Alba, his fifth opera, composed when he was fifteen in 1771 to a text by Giuseppe Parini. This opera was billed at the time as a festa teatrale (not an opera seria following the strict rules of that era) for the entertainment of the aristocratic wedding guests at the wedding of Archduke Ferdinand Karl (1771-1806) and Maria Beatrice d’Este (1750-1829).
According to an article by Silke Leopold in the Frankfurt program booklet, Parini’s libretto for Ascanio in Alba is “a clever mix of ancient mythology, Roman historical tradition, allegory and praise of rulers.”
The title figure, Ascanio, is a lot like the groom, Archduke Ferdinand. The bride Silvia in the opera is quite similar to the real-life bride Maria Beatrice.
Ascanio’s mother in the opera is Venus, the Goddess of Love, who is somewhat incongruously modeled after Archduke Ferdinand’s real-life mother, the Habsburg Empress Maria Theresia (1717-1780).
The plot of Ascanio in Alba reminds me of two Händel operas with domineering mothers: Agrippina, about a lady in ancient Rome who connives to get her son Nero installed as Emperor; and Ottone, Re di Germania, in which Gismonda tries (unsuccessfully) to help her son Adelberto usurp Ottone’s kingdom and steal his fiancée.
Venus in Ascanio in Alba was an unusual role for the Ukrainian soprano Kateryna Kasper, who more often gets the gorgeous-young-bride kind of roles. But I thought she was equally convincing as Ascanio’s domineering mother, appropriately costumed in a formidable blue dress with padded shoulders.
Ascanio in this opera is given the task (by his mother, of course) of founding the then-new city of Alba. I must admit I had never known anything about Alba before, but it turns out to be the forerunner of the current city of Castelgandolfo, an Italian town located 25 km southeast of Rome on a lake called Lago Albano.
From left to right in the first row: soprano Kateryna Kasper as Venus, soprano Karolina Bengtsson as the bride Silvia, the conductor Alden Gatt, mezzo-soprano Cecelia Hall in the trouser-role of Ascanio, soprano Anna Nekhames as Fauno and tenor Andrew Kim as Aceste.
The stage director of this production was Nina Brazier, who came as the featured guest to my English-language opera appreciation course Frankfurt OperaTalk one evening in 2019.
Others in this production who have come as featured guests to my courses include the singers Cecelia Hall (in 2016) and Kateryna Kasper (in 2012 and 2016), as well as several of the orchestra musicians, rehearsal coaches and members of the backstage staff.
My photos and text in this post are from 2023.