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Seen and Heard Opera Review

Mozart, ‘La Clemenza di Tito’ English National Opera, soloists, ENO orchestra, dir. Roland Böer, London Coliseum, Saturday February 5th 2005 (ME)

‘In the evening to the theatre. The grand opera is not so grand, and the music very bad, so that almost all of us went to sleep.’ Thus the Empress Maria Luisa writing to her daughter-in-law after the first performance of ‘la clemenza’ as ENO describes it, here given in a beautifully austere production graced with some very fine singing. Commissioned to celebrate Emperor Leopold II’s coronation as King of Bohemia in 1791, the opera was put together in eighteen days whilst Mozart was still writing the ‘Requiem’ and ‘Die Zauberflöte,’ and it has of course triumphed over its initial poor reception.



In this formal, ‘occasional’ work of just eleven arias, the singers delineate their characters in Handelian moments of crisis: a protagonist gives vent to his or her emotions, and we then move on to the next predicament, and as with a Handel opera, the singers must have command of a florid technique as well as elegant phrasing. A thorough grounding in Handelian style was surely the main reason for the success of Emma Bell’s Vitellia and Sarah Connolly’s Sesto, both of whose singing matched the intensity of their characterization. It is not too huge a step from the role of Rodelinda to that of Vitellia, and Ms Bell’s singing in the role of the jealous princess was ideally balanced between intimacy and rage: ‘Deh, se piacer mi vuoi’ was finely phrased, she took the top D in the trio with apparent ease, and ‘Non più di fiori’ showed an impressive range, the voice only occasionally hardening under pressure.

‘Non più di fiori’ was also remarkable for the beautifully judged basset-horn obbligato (Robert Ault) and the same applied to the clarinet for Sesto’s ‘Parto, parto,’ played with liquid tone by Anthony Lamb, in a manner of which Mozart would surely have approved: he wrote to his friend Anton Stadler (for whom these pieces were written) that he never should have thought ‘that a clarinet could be capable of imitating a human voice so deceptively as it was imitated by you… your instrument has so soft and so lovely a tone that nobody can resist it who has a heart.’

It would be equally hard to resist the Sesto of Sarah Connolly, whose beautifully burnished mezzo was heard at its finest in this role: ‘Parto, parto’ was sung with the kind of engagement which Brigitte Fassbaender used to bring to the part, but without the latter’s occasionally breathy phrasing, and her ‘Deh, per questo istante solo’ was confidently phrased: at the moment her interpretation just needs a little more emphasis to make it a fine portrayal of Sesto’s dilemma.

There was nothing at all lacking in Sally Matthews’ performance as Servilia: the role is of course a gift for an emergent soprano and one rarely hears a poor exponent of it, but this was genuinely touching singing as well as unusually convincing acting: ’S’ altro che lagrime’ may be a slight arietta compared to the great set pieces but it was memorably sung – I recall her Iris as being the one saving grace of the ROH ‘Semele’ in 2003 and it’s good to see her excelling at ENO. Stephanie Marshall also had a considerable success as Annio: hers is a lovely voice with a bright, shimmering top and a warm and confident middle register, and she made the character entirely credible. Neal Davies was a finely stoical Publio.

Seneca famously wrote to Nero that ‘…it is the act of a great mind in the height of his authority to suffer injuries… nothing is more glorious in a Prince, than to pardon those who have offended him’ and this seems indeed to have been the philosophy of the real Titus, who ruled Rome from 79 to 81. Such reasoned benevolence is of course very challenging to portray onstage, villains always being more captivating, and Paul Nilon made his usual very decent fist of it. However, it is often the fate of this opera to have its leading man overshadowed by the two other protagonists, at least in vocal terms, and so it was here. The part was originally written for the same tenor who had created the role of Ottavio, and it presents different, yet equally challenging problems: the voice needs to be fairly powerful as an instrument, extremely flexible and capable of florid display, and yet able to phrase with tenderness: it was only in the last of these that Nilon excelled. He created a sympathetic figure in ‘Se all’ impero,’ torn between his own feelings and his perceived duty, but the voice was not really up to the demands made upon it, and the same was true of ‘Dei più sublime soglio’ where he found the long lines somewhat taxing.


The chief virtues of the production (David McVicar) were that it allowed the action to unfold without too much extraneous business, and that you did glimpse something of the dichotomies involved in the individual characters as they grappled with their fates. Otherwise, it seemed to be a hotch-potch of ideas and influences, from the appropriate, such as the beautifully swirled floor which recalled Roman Mosaics, and the notion that the presence of the Emperor is so dazzling that mere mortals cannot gaze upon it, to the peculiarly misplaced such as the vaguely ‘Persian’ motifs in two of the stage panels and the costumes, and the presence of staff-wielding samurai-types as the Imperial Guard. Plenty of lovely muscle on show, and I’m sure the many gentlemen in the audience of the kind – how shall one put this delicately? – who regard ‘Spartacus’ as great music will have been thrilled, but it was hardly illuminating.

Yannis Thavoris seems to have based his design for the panels on two striking works by Cristina Iglesias (in the Whitechapel Gallery) and given that the singers are often required to lean against or beat their hands on them it’s a pity that they are a bit wobbly in construction. Rome burned convincingly at the close of Act 1: otherwise, the design is sparse and muted, the costumes (a nutmeg robe for Tito, topped off with a mustard over-garment) often the only colour. The lighting (Paula Constable) subtly complements this understatement.

No understatement at all in the vigorous, stylish off-stage choral singing, or the remarkably assured conducting of Roland Böer, making his ENO debut. Böer also played the harpsichord continuo, and I cannot recall having heard it done with such spirit and dramatic verve since Jeffrey Tate at Covent Garden some 20 years ago. The orchestra played beautifully for him, reminding us that when they are on form and inspired by the right conductor, these are some of the finest ensemble players in the world. Tempi throughout were on the lively side, although the singers were given plenty of time to shape their arias, and the musical direction always allowed the narrative to unfold without appearing rushed; a notable performance.

This evening’s was one of ENO’s initiatives whereby a sizeable proportion of the best stalls and Dress Circle seats were sold at £10, thereby ensuring not only a full house but a lively and responsive audience. ‘Clemenza’ may not have been the ideal first choice for someone who is completely new to opera, but even if just a few members of last night’s audience return as regulars, the house and its sponsors will have achieved their aim. It may not be quite true that ‘Connoisseurs are in doubt whether ‘Tito’ does not in fact surpass ‘Don Giovanni’ (Niemetschek, ‘Life of Mozart’) but when one can hear it sung and played with such commitment as it is here, there are moments when it’s possible to imagine this being the case.

Melanie Eskenazi

Photos © Laurie Lewis, ENO, February 2005

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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)