Opera Review
Mozart La Clemenza di Tito Royal Opera House, 26 January 2000

picture: ROH The Times, photographer John Stilwell

With good memories of La Clemenza di Tito, starring Stuart Burrows in the final 1989 revival of the 1974 Anthony Besch production, it was not easy to come to terms with the 1982/90 version by husband-&-wife directors Ursel and Karl-Ernst Herrmann, imported from Salzburg for the first season of the reopened Royal Opera House. Following prolonged, animated discussion, here is a composite husband-&-wife review!

Set in a white box (remember the one for Judith Weir's Chinese Opera?) lined at the lower level by reflective plastic sheeting, a floor criss-crossed by geometric patterns and minimal props, involvement was deliberately distanced in this 'deconstructive' interpretation. Attempts at easy emotionality were forsaken in favour of a thoughtful and reasoned, but flawed presentation. Not all the visual distractions were immediately comprehensible or seemed necessary. Huge doors open by themselves, groups of people appear in circular openings high up in the walls instead of being on stage, a boat slowly crosses the completely dry stage. Bright neon lighting appeared below the walls to signify, to opera goers unfamiliar with the conventions, that another aria was to start!

Mozart's last opera, first performed in 1791, was commissioned for the coronation of the King of Bohemia. In the background hovers the spectre of the cataclysmic French revolution with its embodiment of aspirations for change, as well as fear. Autocratic heroes were no longer welcome, and in the role of Titus we see expressed, as well as openly stated, the need for rulers to win allegiance through love, not fear. A tall order!

The underlying message to Bohemia's king was - be merciful and kind if you want to keep head and crown on your shoulders! A gentle monarch has a difficult tightrope to walk between authority, maintenance of power and concessions to tender and generous human values. This opera, and its current production, seem (at least to one of us) to go to the heart of the serious and momentous social changes set in train by the move towards democratisation, a process that could be said to be still incomplete.

On the whole the performance was musically strong. Nicholas McGegan conducted a sound account of the score, and there were only brief minor hiccups in the operation of the stage machinery and sur-titles, which were not put under excessive strain for this production. Patricia Schuman was imposing as the frustrated, jealous and histrionic Vitellia, seeking redress for loss of her rightful inheritance as daughter of the previous emperor, who had been murdered by Tito's father. Vessalina Kasarova and Ruxandra Donose, both singing excellently as Sesto and his friend Annio, were, in this production, denied any serious attempt to simulate men in their trouser roles, perhaps signifying that some problems should not need to be gendered. Christiane Oelze was charming as Sesto's sister, Serviglia. As her name implies, she was presented as a somewhat gauche, but honest and endearing servant-girl. That the emperor considered her as a consort was surely a sop to egalitarian values sweeping Europe at the time when Mozart was writing this work? Mercifully both she and the emperor were let off the hook by her previous involvement with Annio, and the hierarchic boat (the one in which she was taken across stage?) was not rocked too much, at least for the time being! Many symbols, many uncertainties.

The Tito in this production is presented as a vulnerable and emasculated hero, expressing the conflict inherent in his social position - being on top of a hierarchy gets in the way of being a kind and ordinary human being. The American tenor Vinson Cole, making his R.O.H. debut, did not sing with sufficiently steady tone and timbre, nor did he seem to have the experience and authority to take centre stage and provide a fully credible picture of this complex character, a ruler under threat, grappling with his innate generosity. Lorenzo Regazzo is a strong Italian baritone, who brought to his role of prefect of the guard a dandyish cynicism and disdain for his emperor's softness and naivety as to the ways of the world.

The star of the evening, and a name to remember, was the Bulgarian Sesto, Vessalina Kasarova. Her rich voice was under perfect control, she made light of the demanding Parto, parto with clarinet obbligato, and she acted in character (so far as her costume allowed) as the besotted lover who was persuaded to betray his friend, the Emperor, coming as near as could be to execution before the last minute exercise of royal clemency.

Peter and Alexa Woolf

Another review

Writing this 244 years and a day after the birth of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, it seems that the Boy Wonder shows little sign of losing his grip on the public imagination at the start of the 21st century. All three venues - Royal Opera House, London Coliseum and Queen Elizabeth Hall - were packed to the rafters.

A couple of years ago, during the closure of the Opera House, the Royal Opera mounted some concert performances of Verdi's Otello at the same time as English National Opera staged the composer's Falstaff. The same situation now arises with Mozart's last brace of operas - the Royal Opera doing La Clemenza, with ENO giving no less than a ninth airing to its jolly view of The Magic Flute, originally directed many moons ago by Nicholas Hytner, and on this occasion healthily resuscitated by Carlos Wagner. Although one is an opera seria in Italian and the other a singspiel in the German vernacular, there are many interesting parallels between Tito and the Flute, as might be expected, in that the ailing Mozart worked on them simultaneously. Tito presents in many ways a mirror image of Die Zauberflote; and, tonally, both works centre around a relationship between E flat and C, the two Masonic keys. The bonds between the two operas are further consolidated in the two figureheads who stand apart from the rest of the dramatis personae: Emperor Titus and Sarastro. Moreover, both of these late works aim at the transcendental, exploring deep and timeless themes such as forgiveness, friendship, spirituality and, ultimately, Enlightenment.

It might seem somewhat odd that in his final year - 1791 - Mozart should return to the by then outdated convention of opera seria, especially after his daring expansions of operatic form in the three collaborations with Da Ponte. La Clemenza di Tito was commissioned as part of the celebrations in Prague for the coronation of the Emperor Leopold II as King of Bohemia. Mozart employs a by then already old and well-used libretto by Metastasio, yet cuts the text drastically, introducing duets, trios and choruses to boot, and turning the whole into what he himself called 'true opera'. Ingeniously it all makes Tito not so much backward-looking as forward-looking: opera seria from a new slant.

One might also perceive how such a view of the piece could appeal to the post-modern sensibilities of so many contemporary directors, and thus why productions of La Clemenza have been proliferating over the last fifteen or so years. Here, revamping their staging first seen at the Salzburg Festival in 1992, the directorial duo of Ursel and Karl-Ernst Herrmann opt for what might be called the 'white box' approach. No exact setting, neither Roman nor 18th century, is given; instead, within an empty enclosed space various aspects of the narrative are, admittedly very stylishly, dressed and highlighted. It's all somewhat deconstructionist (outdatedly deconstructionist at that); and reminiscent of Peter Brook's both celebrated and notorious view of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream in a white gymnasium. The Hermanns don't go as far as Brook; and, with opening and closing doors and portholes and vivid flashes of strip lighting, their box has somewhat more tricks. It's all quite watchable but still doesn't really illuminate the opera's core themes a great deal. More successfully portrayed is the psychological battle; and here the Hermanns's box, with its allusions to the paintings of De Chirico, does at least lend an air of Expressionist claustrophobia to proceedings.

The hard-worked cast of six do their utmost to animate the directorial thrust whilst also of course turning their attention to delivering Mozart's by no means simple score. Patricia Schuman looks and sounds splendid as a high energy Vitellia, here made a real diva role, with Ms Schuman rightly seizing the opportunity offered. Vesselina Kasarova is also in great voice as Sesto, animating the part with consummate vocal fluency and dramatic urgency. The more Romantic tenor timbres of Vinson Cole's Emperor don't quite seem to fit the picture, though there is little wrong with his delivery or portrayal. And there couldn't be much better support than from from Ruxandre Donose, Christiane Oelze and Lorenzo Regazzo, as Annio, Servilia and Publio respectively, each singing excellently and with razor-sharp precision. Under Nicholas McGegan's baton, the Royal Opera Orchestra takes a while to settle into the necessary Mozartean mindset but once they do it's all systems go: obliggato clarinet and basset horn shining, trumpets and timpani blazing. Seriously worth hearing, with the seeing maybe not quite that seria!

Duncan Hadfield

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