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Mozart, La clemenza di Tito: soloists, orchestra and chorus of Frankfurt Opera, Paolo Carignani (conductor), Christof Loy (director), Herbert Murauer (sets and costumes). Premiered on 27.01.2006, performance seen: 2.2.2006 (SM)



Titus: Kurt Streit

Vitellia: Silvana Dussmann

Servilia: Britta Stallmeister

Sextus: Alice Coote

Annius: Jenny Carlstedt

Publius: Simon Bailey





Barely a month into the Mozart year, one could perhaps be forgiven for wishing it were already over. Nikolaus Harnoncourt is not the only one who is sickened by the greedy commercialism, not to mention some of the shoddy, ill-prepared performances of Mozart's music that we've already been subjected to. And there are still 11 more months to go! But now and then comes a ray of hope, performances that steer clear of Mozart's Greatest Hits and put his lesser-known works in the spotlight or throw new light on those masterpieces we think we know so well.

For the composer's 250th birthday itself on January 27, Frankfurt opera, which already has a string of very good Mozart stagings under its belt, turned its attention to that ugly duckling of the composer's operatic canon, the much-maligned late Opera seria, La clemenza di Tito. And far from being a stiff, turgid coronation spectacle, an unfashionable, obtusely-plotted work comprising an interminable series of arias alternating with dry recitative for cardboard cutout figures, director Christof Loy gives us a gripping music drama peopled by believable characters of flesh and blood.


He achieves that not by blinding us with breathless images and in-your-face actionism so characteristic of much modern-day Regietheater, but by giving the six main characters room and space to act out their internal emotional dramas. And space means long, dramatic silences at a number of key points, which rather than being symptomatic of any longeur to the evening, keep our pulses racing and contribute to the intensity of the drama. The single 'cello note that breaks just such a silence in the final confrontation between Titus and Sextus towards the end of Act II cuts like a knife.

Herbert Murauer's airy sets -- which range from run-down palazzo to what appears to be the backstage of an empty theatre -- and chic, understated costumes are elegant and unobtrusive. But perhaps the strength of Loy's reading relies above all on the excellent young cast that Frankfurt has assembled, all making their role-debuts, who are as good actors as they are singers.

Kurt Streit in the title role, with his light, sweet tenor, is utterly believable as the handsome, young emperor-in-the-making, struggling to live up to the image that both he himself and his people have imposed on him as a ruler of almost super-human fairness and justness. Indeed, in the final scene, as he is pursued by the crowds through the revolving set, it is almost as if his fabled clemency has become a curse that he finally tries to flee. Only once or twice did a slight edge and constrictedness creep into Streit's top notes.


The smallest of the roles, Publius, was excellently sung by Frankfurt's own bass-baritone Simon Bailey. And both Servilia and Annius were also superbly taken by ensemble members, Britta Stallmeister and Jenny Carlstedt. Stallmeister with her laser-point, feather-light soprano was girlishly affecting, while Carlstedt's mezzo was infinitely warm and secure. Silvana Dussmann also excelled as Vitellia, even if -- for my taste at least -- her voice was a mite too heavy for the role. One or two missed top notes aside in Act I, her aria in Act II where she realizes the extent of Sextus' love for her was gripping.

But the cornerstone of the evening was Alice Coote as Sextus. The youthful beauty of her mezzo coupled with astonishing poise and technical assurance made it hard to believe that she was making her role debut. Her range stretches from the most delicate piannissimi to glorious coloratura.

In the pit, Frankfurt's GMD Paolo Carignani was an expertly alert accompanist, fleet-footed and flexible, and totally synchronized with Loy's masterful timing on stage. The pared-down Museumsorchester, complete with the Hammerklavier continuo (Felice Venanzoni) which lent a pleasing period-instrument timbre to evening, was also excellent, and particular mention should perhaps be made of the extended clarinet and basset-horn solos.

All in all then, Frankfurt's new Titus, which is a co-production with the Theater an der Wien in Vienna, shows that the Mozart year has a lot more to offer than interminable pot-pourris and rehashes of "Eine kleine Nachtmusik". This is intelligent, committed music-making with a superb, young cast that may hopefully help contribute to a reassessment of a Mozart opera that has long been overlooked.



Simon Morgan



 Pictures © Barbara Aumüller 2006

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