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Mozart, La clemenza di Tito: Vancouver Opera, soloists, Jonathan Darlington (conductor), Chas Rader-Shieber (director), David Zinn (set and costume designer), Gerald King (lighting designer), Leslie Dala (chorus director), Queen Elizabeth Theatre, Vancouver, British Columbia, 5.2.2011 (BJ)


Late Mozart of questionable quality sounds like an anomalous concept, yet La clemenza di Tito was for a long time regarded as a sort of step-child among the composer’s operatic progeny. More recently, some rather grand claims have been made for the work’s “major masterpiece” status.

Vancouver Opera’s handsome production (originally designed for the Santa Fe Opera) may not have quite convinced me of that view, but it did apprise me of a way to appreciate Mozart’s last opera at its true value. That way, I would suggest, is to think of Clemenza not in isolation, but as what might be called a parergon to Die Zauberflöte, with whose creation its composition was inextricably interlinked. It has been suggested that Zauberflöte might almost be called “La clemenza di Sarastro,” and if that judgement seems to go a bit far, this experience of Clemenza did, it dawned on me, illuminate the work as a kind of application of Zauberflöte’s Singspiel elements—and of some of its Masonic ethos—to the very different world of Italian opera seria.

The affinity, moreover, is not just a matter of the numbers in Clemenza composed in distinctly Singspiel-ish vein. The first chorus in the second of the opera’s two acts, “Ah grazie si rendono,” vividly recalls the atmosphere and even the style of such moments in Zauberflöte as Sarastro’s aria-with-chorus, “O Isis und Osiris”; and the struggle of the tenor protagonist, the merciful emperor Titus, to maintain his moral poise against the temptation to lapse into vindictiveness, is not a million miles distant from the trials undergone by Tamino and Pamina.

Such considerations were materially supported by the elegant and generally non-specific physical setting of this production, with decor and costumes essentially evoking Mozart’s own time, and by Chas Rader-Shieber’s admirably clear and unfussy marshaling of his singers. (The curtain remaining down throughout the overture, we were even allowed to enjoy its fine music without distraction from any on-stage shenanigans, a luxury that seems increasingly rare these days.) Jonathan Darlington’s customarily skillful leadership of the company’s excellent orchestra, and the assured work of Leslie Dala’s chorus, further enhanced the impact of the opera.

Among the cast members, Wendy Nielsen made a genuinely compelling figure of Vitellia; one or two somewhat shrill top notes aside, her powerful soprano voice coped splendidly with the demands of the part, and her acting evinced dignity suitably blended with the character’s impulsiveness and moral ambivalence. Krisztina Szabó was equally convincing as a strong-voiced and dramatically appealing Sesto. Thomas Goerz unfurled some resplendent bass-baritone sonorities as the Republican Guard prefect, Publio, and Norine Burgess and Kathleen Brett provided admirable portrayals of Sesto’s friend Annio and sister Servilia.

The role of Titus himself is not an easy one either to sing or to act. John Tessier began a shade anonymously in both tone and bearing, but he rose to some truly authoritative singing with his first big aria in Act 2—when in any case the music itself seems to step to a higher level of inspiration—and he made something intensely moving of the scene in which he desperately tries to elicit from Sesto an explanation for that character’s shocking betrayal.

Stuart Tarbuck’s supertitles were lucid and helpful, though Mr. Tarbuck should take note that “the role of he who reigns” (I think those were the words) is not English. That was a tiny blemish in a thoroughly enjoyable, even revelatory, evening’s opera.

Bernard Jacobson


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