Sun 10 Mar 2013
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - La Clemenza di Tito
Opera North, 2013 | Douglas Boyd, John Fulljames, Paul Nilon, Annemarie Kremer, Fflur Wyn, Helen Lepalaan, Kathryn Rudge, Henry Waddington | Grand Opera House, Belfast, 7 March 2013
Mozart’s final opera La Clemenza di Tito was composed in 1791 as a commission for the coronation of Leopold II as King of Bohemia. It had a short-life span which barely lasted much beyond the death of Mozart just three months after its first unsuccessful performance. The opera’s failure and subsequent disappearance into near-obscurity for centuries can be put down to the haste in which it was written (once account claims it was written in just 18 days), its old-fashioned opera seria structure that was based on an old libretto by Metastasio that had already been set more than 40 times by other composers, and the fact that its story of a benevolent and forgiving king was somewhat dated and out of touch even then with the revolutionary upheaval going on in Europe at the time.
Mozart was of course in ill-health and in financial difficulties by the time he came to write La Clemenza di Tito, requiring the assistance of his student Süssmayer and Catherino Mazzolà to adapt Metastasio’s libretto into a workable form, but Mozart also completed some of his greatest works during the same late period, not least of which were The Magic Flute and the Requiem, so it’s not surprising that the composer’s final work has resurfaced and been subjected to a number of successful productions that have highlighted the aspects of the qualities that are to be found within it. Despite the rigidity of the opera seria form and the seemingly outdated libretto, it’s also a work that can sustain modern and stylised reinterpretations. And, contrary to its unrealistically optimistic outlook on the wisdom and goodness of the monarchy, certain elements of Mozart’s own enlightened views can be found in the work if a director is willing to delve deeper beneath the surface.
Opera North’s fresh, unfussy, clean and modernistically classical account of La Clemenza di Tito (seen on tour in Belfast) is just such a production. Recognising that the strength of the work lies within Mozart’s writing, there’s nothing too radical attempted here in terms of interpretation. Douglas Boyd’s conducting of the Orchestra of Opera North places emphasis on the structure and rhythm of the piece, not seeking to overstate the relative simplicity of the arrangements, yet it pays attention to how certain lyrical touches give warmth and personality to what would otherwise be stock opera seria characters. This is where the danger lies in any performance of La Clemenza di Tito. It can seem like a dry, conventional and academic work, remote and aloof, uninspired in many sections, simply going through the motions and without some real emotional investment on the part of the singers, it can come across as just the rote recital of lines.
A work like La Clemenza di Tito however needs some careful consideration if it is to bring these characters to life and make their predicament seem relevant. On the surface, it doesn’t look like director John Fulljames has done much tweaking of the piece. The subject remains grave and serious, each of the characters involved seem to have their own personal predicaments and it seems that anything that the Roman Emperor Titus Flavius Vespasianus (71 to 81 AD) does will only lead to unhappiness for others. As far as traditional opera seria goes, Metastasio’s libretto then meets all the necessary conditions that allow a composer to express these deep feelings of anger, resentment, jealousy, betrayal and vengeance in the musical arrangements, while the work as a whole fulfils its function as a suitable piece to put on to celebrate a coronation, showing how a monarch rules for the good of his people, with wisdom, compassion, forgiveness and clemency.
Making the work feel relevant while remaining faithful to its intentions is however still something of a challenge. Setting it in the past, in its historical setting (whether from an Ancient Roman or with regard towards its 18th century relevance), will not do a great deal for this dusty opera seria, other than making it look like an ancient operatic curiosity, but it’s difficult to see how it can be applied to any modern context. Fulljames doesn’t attempt to impose any specific present-day parallel (an interesting essay in the programme attempts to relate it to Boris Johnson and David Cameron’s present UK coalition government, but it’s far from convincing), but rather sets it in a more generically timeless modern office boardroom setting of clean lines and geometric structures. While this might not seem to do much to give La Clemenza di Tito contemporary relevance, it does however provide a perfectly appropriate environment for the meticulous elegant structures of Mozart’s score, and it also reflects the progression of the drama as those lines and structures break up and fragment, only to become whole again at the end.
What brings considerably more humanity out of this work however is the careful attention paid to the emotions and the predicament of the characters, and the degree of emphasis placed on their respective positions. The key to the relevance of La Clemenza di Tito in Opera North’s production, and the principal reason for its success here, lies in the consideration it gives to the relatively secondary characters of Annio and Servilia. There’s good reason to assume that this is not just an arbitrary tweak that distorts the balance of the work, but that it does fit in closer to Mozart’s own personal views and his distinctive approach to the work. While all the others are running around striving to further their own personal and political agendas (Vitellia to become Empress, Sesto to win the love of Vitellia, the recently appointed Tito to give his people firm, stable leadership), Annio and Servilia strike a balance between these opposing positions that seemingly cannot co-exist.
Tito’s clemency at the end of the opera evidently lies at the heart of the work, mending the divisions that have been stirred up to have such terrible consequences. That healing comes about however through the intervention and selfless appeals of Annio and Servilia. Although they are indeed motivated by their love for each other, they are prepared to put their own happiness aside if it is ultimately for the greater good. Tito responds to the openness and honesty in Servilia pleas. She is the only one who speaks the plain truth that other yes-men in his inner-circle, too concerned about their own position, will not. It’s Annio’s honest, heartfelt appeals too that touch Tito much more than Sesto’s belated regrets for his betrayal, as sincere as his sentiments may be. None of this takes anything away from the opposing contrasts that are so important in the work, or the reconciliation that takes place between them, but rather it makes their resolution just that little bit more meaningful and credible, to say nothing of truly humanistic.
It’s to the credit then of Fulljames and Boyd that not only does the warmth of Mozart’s writing for these parts and their importance come through, but it’s not to the detriment of the other figures who are traditionally given a bigger billing. That was reflected in the way that the casting was not only strong for the main roles of Tito (Paul Nilon), Vitellia (Annemarie Kremer) and Sesto (Helen Lepalaan), but that attention was paid to singers of warmth of expression in the roles of Annio (Kathryn Rudge) and Servilia (Fflur Wyn), as well as the rather serious Publio (Henry Waddington). Not one of the performances felt like routine deliveries, but rather like their characters and personalities had been carefully thought through and given expression, without mannerism, in the smallest of details and gestures.
La Clemenza di Tito can still have challenges making a staging visually interesting and meaningful, but Conor Murphy’s innovative designs and geometric lines suggested classical structures in a modern context. Back-projections and a rotating dividing screen that projected images and transformed from transparency to opacity, opened up and closed down spaces with perfect precision, working wonderfully in accord with the musical content, playing to the strengths of the work and the singers.