Wyn, Fflur


ClemenzaWolfgang 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 Despite the rigidity of the opera seria form and the seemingly outdated libretto, it’s also a work that can sustain modern and stylised reinterpretations.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.

Oscar Bianchi - Thanks to my Eyes

Festival Aix-en-Provence, 2011 | Franck Ollu, Joël Pommerat, Hagen Matzeit, Brian Bannatyne-Scott, Keren Motseri, Fflur Wyn, Anne Rotger, Antonie Rigot | Bel Air Media, La Monnaie Internet streaming

Eyes

Writing his first opera, commissioned by the Aix-en-Provence Festival and premiered there in 2011, Swiss-Italian composer Oscar Bianchi took a French drama by Joël Pommerat (‘Grâce à mes yeux’) as the source of Thanks to my Eyes, but took the unusual step of asking the author to adapt the work into the English language for the libretto. The reason for the change of language, according to the composer, working very much in the modern musical idiom, was purely technical and related to the more discordant sounds and textures evoked by the work that suited English singing better than the more musical-sounding French. I can think of another reason not explicitly stated by the composer why you would be cautious about setting a French-language drama to music, and that’s Pelléas et Mélisande.

Even then, while there might be the occasional reminder of the more spooky elements of Britten’s Turn of the Screw in the chamber instruments, it still proves impossible to escape the huge influence of Debussy’s only opera and its extraordinary ability to fuse music to Maeterlinck’s already existing play, while keeping the original almost entirely intact. Bianchi’s approach to creating a musical ambience for Pommerat’s drama works - and works reasonably well to often striking effect, it has to be said - in a similar way. Cutting the original work back extensively to fit an opera work that is only about one hour and ten minutes long, the short scenes in Thanks to my Eyes have a similar feeling of incompleteness, interruption and open abstraction that is there in Debussy and Maeterlinck’s symbolist work. The similarities however exist more than just on the surface approach of connecting the music to the drama.

Eyes

While the story and themes are quite different to Pelléas et Mélisande, there are similarities in the theatrical representation of the drama. A young man, Aymar, timid and solitary, is dominated by his famous father, a great comedian who, in the first scene, is shown handing one of the suits he uses in his act to his son, clearly expecting him to follow in his footsteps. His dominance of Aymar however also extends to control over finding a suitable woman for the young man, suggesting and trying to influence Aymar into choosing a woman like his own mother, much as he chose his wife based on his own mother. Aymar however is torn between two women, a Young Blond Woman and a mysterious cloaked Young Woman in the Night who keeps her face covered, who he secretly meets on a mountain top away from the eyes of his family. He knows however that he must break off this relationship, but is too timid to even be able to take that step.

Reducing the drama down to key scenes, although maintaining a linear, serial flow, even if some of the scenes are rather abstract in nature, does have the impact of bringing any undercurrents and symbolism directly to the surface. Like Debussy however, even though he is working in a much different musical language, the intention of Bianchi is to convey a sense of deeper meaning and suggestion beyond actual language and physical expression. While on the one hand then the figures all fit into regular types - domineering father, passive mother, child seeking to find his own sense of self and expression apart from them - there are other intriguing elements that are indeed evoked by the drama scenes, lighting and the use of the atmospheric chamber music. It may not be the most memorable or melodic music, but its intent is to integrate more fully into the whole theatrical process as a Gesamkunstwerk, as does the expression through the singing.

Eyes

The singing on this recording at the opera’s world premiere run in Aix-en-Provence, is of an exceptionally high standard, and when I say exceptionally high, I’m not just referring to the unusual use of a countertenor voice for Aymar, sung by Hagen Matzeit. This is an appropriate choice for the figure, emphasising his difference from his (not unexpected) bass-baritone father, Brian Bannatyne-Scott. The singing and sometimes wayward phrasing weave in complex ways, and work well off each other in this context. Interestingly, while the two women are sopranos (both singing the roles wonderfully, Fflur Wyn in particular having to reach some extraordinary high notes), the mother has a speaking-role only, and speaks in French, as do the others when speaking to her. The dramatic reasons for this are remain unexplained - it’s not much of a stretch to imagine that their mother might be a native French speaker - but it does introduce another intriguing dramatic and vocal element that contributes to the overall complexity of the meaning contained within the overall soundscape.

The tone of the music and singing and the effect it creates is matched by the staging, directed by the original author and librettist, Joël Pommerat. Locations are generic - outdoors, indoors, on a mountain top, at a edge of a cliff - uniformly grey in the darkness (barring a sunrise and some atmospheric lighting effects here and there), sparse and solitary, clearly evoking an emotional landscape more than a literal one. On the whole, regardless of what you judge to be the qualities of the often obscure motivations and actions in the drama or whether you find the style of music pleasant or not, the work does indeed transport you into another world entirely and hold you in its thrall for over an hour.

Broadcast via the Internet streaming service of La Monnaie-De Munt, (available on-line until 5th May 2012) this recording unusually isn’t of the current production running in Brussels, but a recording made at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 2011. I’m not sure how this would have been presented on the stage, but the television recording allows the disparate scenes to flow and change without any breaks in the music, using frequent intertitles (in French) along the lines of “A few moments later, in the same place” or “That night, on the mountain top” to effect the rapid switches in time and location. Yes, Thanks to my Eyes is a rather strange, experimental piece of avant-garde music-theatre whose meaning may be difficult to fathom, with music and singing that may be challenging to the ears, but it does succeed in creating an alternative means of expression that comes across effectively on the screen and I’m sure even more so in a theatre.