Austerity Tito

2 Mar

I’d love to know how Mozart viewed Clemenza di Tito.  Was this a “duty” piece that he didn’t expect to last much in a form that he didn’t feel particularly comfortable with?  Or was it something that interested him, but lack of time didn’t permit him to do it justice?  Either way, it’s an opera that is not easy to make work and the performance I saw of Opera North’s production that I saw on 28th February at Newcastle’s Theatre Royal, while having lots going for it, didn’t disguise the problems.

Let’s get them out of the way: there is an awful lot of recitative and it’s all rather repetitive – they don’t feel as though they are by Mozart and they lack .  They also lack the inspiration, the movement and interplay that Mozart would surely have provided had he been inspired by the subject matter.  Secondly, there are a number of arias and duets which are simply ordinary and there is a formality about them that you simply do not get in Zauberflote, which he was writing about the same time.  You can’t help feeling that you know which audience he preferred writing for.  The musical characterisation isn’t as clear or well-defined as in the other operas: it’s really hard to tell Sesto and Annio apart while, musically, Tito’s three arias strike me as interchangeable.  Indeed – you keep hearing echoes of other operas – particularly Cosí and Zauberflote, without feeling that there’s an individual timbre for this opera as there is for most of the other mature works. Finally, there is the plot which  is almost comic in the way that you just want to tell everyone to make up their minds and be a bit competent for a change.  It’s easy to see why it’s not done that often: for my money, Idomeneo is a far more interesting and enjoyable experience.

And yet, a good performance can make it interesting and the characters’ dilemmas matter.  For me, the heart is not so much the arias as the huge scene in the second act for Tito and Sesto.  In the rights hands that can be a fascinating, moving scene as the conflict of loyalties and emotions comes across.  I can recall two productions where it worked particularly well: Stephen Wadsworth’s with Scottish in 1993 and David McVicar’s at ENO in 2005.  Both of those were in English and you were able to follow the emotions properly.  During the endless recitatives here, I wished that Opera North had followed suit.  Surtitles help a bit, but you do need to be able to understand what they are seeing and, with no native Italian speakers in the cast, I’m not sure we would have lost much.  The Italian only succeeded in adding to the remoteness of the experience.

Despite this, John Fulljames’s production overcame many of the problems.  The setting was contemporary, even futuristic with the costumes fairly unspecific.  The set – a revolve with a large transparent panel and blank walls for projections – suggests an office with projections of buildings, geometric shapes and more (irritatingly including close-ups of Tito’s face).  Costumes, apart from Vitellia’s red hair, were dark and there was an over-powering sombre-ness about the look.  After the fire in the capitol, the cast were dusty and disshevelved as if after a major catastrophe.  There was no chorus onstage (an austerity measure? – McVicar took the same approach) and you were aware that the public aspect of this opera – those huge marches – needed some sort of crowd.

This was compensated for by the fact that there was little privacy.  The Tito/Sesto scene in Act II was watched by the rest of the cast, desperate for Sesto to be reprieved.  There was also some really fine acting and outstanding direction of the cast.  The emotions and motivations were beautifully directed.  Just as an example, the Annio/Servilia duet had the two of them sat on the edge of the stage with Servilia providing wisdom, comfort and strength to Annio, the two getting closer as the duet went on.  It was like watching Bei Männern in Zauberflote.  You believed in the closeness of the relationships and the conflicts.  Later, you sensed the seriousness of the betrayal of Tito and the danger Sesto was in. This, for me, really got to the heart of the opera and put it up there with the most successful stagings.  At the end, there might be forgiveness, but Fulljames sees little hope of reconciliation.  Tito was left on his own and I’m not sure that anyone was going to be marrying anyone else for a while.  It’s these insights that make Fulljames among my favourite operatic directors.

The were some really good performances two.  Annemarie Kremer made a memorable Norma last year and, I thought, made a strong Vitellia.  She gets the fiery temperament and the sense that she’s playing with Sesto beautifully and her remorse at the end was well expressed.  I felt that she wasn’t absolutely secure in Non piú di fiori: she sang it with an almsot Verdian approach which made me think that I’d quite like to hear her as one of Verdi’s Leonoras or even Lady Macbeth.  Helen Lepalaan was, visually, the most convincing Sesto that I’ve seen – a dark, tousle haired young man with a bit of a shadow.  I admired her, committed, really stylish singing hugely.  My only doubt was that, in Partò, partò, she really ought to look fired with enthusiasm and determination – I could understand why there might be a sort of fatalistic despair about her demeanour, but it didn’t really sit well with the singing.

I though Katherine Rudge was a really strong, convincing Annio and Fflur Wyn a really fine Servilia – about the only character with any sense – and she sang beautifully.

Paul Nilon was in excellent form as Tito – this was a worried Tito, full of integrity and doubts and he conveyed those really well, while singing outstandingly.  He’s one of Opera North’s strongest assets and this was probably the finest of the many fine performances I’ve seen from him here.  Henry Waddington also gave a really strong performance as Publio – he sang his aria with real style and security and looked convincing as the cynical minder.

Justin Doyle conducted.  The show had been prepared by Douglas Boyd who conducted all the other performances.  I thought that the tempi were sound and the orchestra played decently while making efforts to play in period.  I wasn’t convinced that the textures in the music were terribly well co-ordinated.  You were aware of the parts played by the different sections in the accompaniment but in a way that sounded slightly jerky, rather than seamless.  It was perfectly fine, but I’ve heard lots better.

So this was rather a glum Tito.  It didn’t solve all the problems, but it engaged and, particularly, in the second Act made a powerful case for the piece.  And the standards of acting and directing were everything you expect from this company.

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