Grand Opera House Belfast


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 Despite the rigidity of the opera seria form and the seemingly outdated libretto, it’s also a work that can sustain modern and stylised reinterpretations.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

Magic FluteWolfgang Amadeus Mozart - The Magic Flute

Scottish Opera, 2012 | Ekhart Wycik, Sir Thomas Allen, Nicky Spence, Claire Watkins, Rachel Hynes, Louise Collett, Richard Burkhard, Mari Moriya, Laura Mitchell, Jonathan Best, Peter Van Hulle | Grand Opera House, Belfast - 1 December 2012

If you want to, you can consider The Magic Flute to be a complex work, and with all the qualities that make up the complex personality and musicianship of Mozart placed within it, it most certainly is a work of incredible richness and variety. Written however with Emanuel Schikaneder as a popular Singspiel, what Die Zauberflöte should be above all else however is witty, charming, funny and entertaining. It has a serious side of course, and a meaningful message to put across - and it does get a little bogged down in solemnity on occasion - but it’s the means by which those ideas are put across that is essential to the brilliance of the work. Comedy, in The Magic Flute, proves to be a much more effective means of getting that across. And music - but I’ll come to that as well.

The light-hearted side of Mozart in Die Zauberflöte can often be undervalued and underrepresented, but the Scottish Opera’s production - seen here in Belfast at the end of the tour on 1st December - gets the balance just about right. That’s a tricky balance to maintain in this work. How, for example, do you account for all the mysticism, the Masonic initiation rituals and grand solemn ceremonies that undoubtedly underpin most of the enlightened ideals that make up the fabric of The Magic Flute, while at the same time making it accessible and entertaining to a modern audience? How do you reconcile the Tamino and the Papageno? Mozart does the hard bit through his remarkable music, showing love to be the most ennobling and life-affirming act that any human being is capable of, but finding a way to make that work in a setting that accounts for all the trappings of the Masonic rituals is a more difficult prospect for a modern production.

Directing for the Scottish Opera, Sir Thomas Allen’s idea isn’t a bad one, setting the story up as a kind of fairground show in a Victorian “Steampunk” setting with gentlemen in stovepipe hats, operating pulleys and clockwork mechanical constructions. Visually it’s a delight, creating the right kind of ‘magical’ background that accounts for freaks and animals, smoke and mirrors, but the steam engineering also feels utterly appropriate to the idea of human ingenuity, progress and man’s ceaseless endeavours to better himself. It doesn’t go all the way to differentiate and clarify the natures of the opposing forces of the Queen of the Night and Sarastro, or establish where dragon slaying fits into the picture, but it’s more important to provide a suitably “fun” setting that better engages the audience and allows the story to flow in a relatively consistent manner.

And who better to engage with the audience than Papageno? Well, the Scottish Opera played an interesting trick in making Tamino a regular member of the audience also, picked out sitting in the Circle by a spotlight during the overture and invited to join in the fun on the stage. Tamino can be a little too earnest a figure to entirely identify with, so some pantomime-style banter with the audience on the part of both Tamino and Papageno - and engaging performances from Nicky Spence and Richard Burkhard - helped break down those barriers between the characters and the audience, which is really what The Magic Flute is all about. It’s about showing what noble sentiments and actions any man is capable of, whether Prince or fool. Or indeed woman.

Much scorn is poured upon womankind in The Magic Flute, no doubt in line with Masonic tradition - but Mozart’s truly enlightened attitude (and I’m sure his love for women) shows that they also have an important part in directing the progress of all mankind on to better things. If there’s any doubt about the work’s intentions towards women, one need only listen to the remarkable music that Mozart scores for the female figures. The masculine characteristics are straight, direct and measured in both their nobility and, in the case of Papageno, playfulness, but the women bring a wildness, an unpredictability and a sense of abandon - most notably in the case of the Queen of the Night’s coloratura and range, but also in the sentiments that plunge Pamina from the heights of love to the depths of despair within the span of minutes, a descent that was handled well in this performance by Laura Mitchell.

All of this is part of what The Magic Flute is about, so in addition to making it look engaging and entertaining, it needs to musically take you on this journey, and on all accounts the Scottish Opera’s production was sympathetic to the rhythms and moods of the piece. There were a few curious lapses in tempo that, for example, drained the intensity both from the Queen of the Night’s entrance and from Sarastro’s grave pronouncements. If they were to give the performer’s room to approach the demands of their ranges, it may have been necessary, but Mari Moriya and Jonathan Best didn’t seem to have too many problems in these tricky roles. All of the main performers then managed to strike that balance exceptionally well, matching the tone and sentiments of Mozart’s writing, and they were well supported by the rest of the cast, with a strong trio in the three Ladies, but also the exceptionally beautiful harmonies produced by the three Boys for this performance.

If there were any minor concerns about the limitations of the fairground setting or in the singers meeting the exceptionally high standards of the work’s vocal demands, it’s more the spirit and the heart of Mozart’s music that is essential to getting the wonder of The Magic Flute across, and the Scottish Opera’s heart was in the right place here.

Hansel and GretelEngelbert Humperdinck - Hansel and Gretel

NI Opera, 2011 | Oliver Mears, David Brophy, Niamh Kelly, Aoife O’Sullivan, Graham Clark, Doreen Curran, Paul Carey Jones, Aoife Miskelly, Rebekah Coffey | Grand Opera House, Belfast - 25 November 2011

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the annual Christmas pantomime had arrived just slightly earlier than usual at the Grand Opera House this year judging by the number of parents with kids, the rustling of crisp packets and a lack of the normal respectful silence one would be accustomed to during the overture to an opera production at the august Belfast venue. But that’s the beauty of Humperdinck’s Hansel & Gretel, which has the traditional fairytale elements that appeal to children, but also has a sumptuous score for opera lovers that lies in the Wagnerian tradition, if somewhat on the lighter side of the Teutonic scale. It’s also the beauty of the new approach to opera being taken by the director of NI Opera, Oliver Mears, who has not only gone out to smaller venues throughout Northern Ireland to seek out a new audience, but, as in the company’s approach to Tosca earlier this year with each of the three acts taking place in Derry in separate venues with local significance, he has also taken into consideration new ways to engage an audience and new ways to present an opera production.

The broad appeal characteristics of Hansel and Gretel however can still make it difficult to judge at what level to pitch it. As NI Opera’s first full-scale production at the Grand Opera House, following a number of smaller chamber works in other venues across the province, there must be an equal temptation to appease the traditional opera fans in the audience as much as play-up the fairy-tale elements and appeal to a new, younger audience who will undoubtedly engage with the strong mix of music, comedy, drama, horror and spectacle that the opera offers. To his credit, Mears doesn’t appear to attempt to steer the opera in any single direction, but instead pays close attention to the composition itself and allows the inherent playful but sinister qualities of Humperdinck’s work to find their own expression without having to make concessions to one audience or the other.

Like most fairytales, and certainly in the case of many of the works of the Brothers Grimm, the cautionary stories often have dark origins. Those are certainly there in Hansel and Gretel, they are there in Humperdinck’s opera and they are not at all underplayed or softened for a younger audience in this production. While the image of the gingerbread house filled with sweets is the most attractive and memorable image associated with the story there’s a warning about the dangers of gluttony in the fattening up of Hansel to be a tasty meal for the witch in the woods who uses her abode to lure young children to their doom. There’s evidently a cautionary element there also relating to the dangers of taking sweets from strangers – the unsettling posters of missing children in this production highlighting that this is more than just children lost in the woods – which takes the story into very dark territory indeed. There are also darker undercurrents in the story and in the opera concerning the relationship of the parents – an authoritative, even perhaps abusive mother and an alcoholic father – and how this relates to the children running away.

Hansel and Gretel

NI Opera’s production consequently avoided all the sugary-sweet Bavarian fairytale elements normally associated with the story, and instead set Act 1 in a rather more familiar modern home setting, even if some of the elements had a rather disturbing but delightfully subversive David Lynch feel to them. Much in the manner in which Lynch’s nightmares seep into the real world, a painting made by the children of a yellow stickman in the dark woods and stuck onto the fridge, forms the backdrop to Act II, the Sandman stepping eerily out of the painting to sprinkle sleep dust onto the children. In contrast to the chatter throughout Act 1 and enjoyment of the childish antics of the two children on the stage, you could have heard a pin drop at this moment, and undoubtedly terrifying as it might appear to the younger children in the audience, it’s an image that would certainly make a strong, memorable impression. Hansel and Gretel’s subsequent dream of the magical angels doesn’t bring any comfort to the children in the audience either, depicting a birthday feast where the mother’s head is presented on a platter.

Act III appears to go into full pantomime mode, with Graham Clark’s Witch almost rivalling May McFetteridge as the Belfast stage’s long-standing traditional pantomime Grand Dame, ending up spinning hilariously and eventually splattered gorily across the window of the giant microwave oven that emerges to dominate the set, but again, there is no holding back on the dark elements that are there in the plot and indeed in the deliciously rich musical score that does indeed have mystical Das Rheingold qualities. Like David Brophy’s conducting of the Ulster Orchestra, each of the singers played their part in reaching into the characters themselves for those deeper dark elements, but managed to balance this with a playful way that they are often expressed. Neither the score nor the singing could always compete with the spoken-out-loud reactions of the children in the audience, but Niamh Kelly’s mischievous Hansel, Paul Carey Jones’ strong deep baritone Father, Rebekah Coffey’s creepy Sandman and Graham Clarke’s well-judged performance and presence all commanded attention.

Performing Hansel and Gretel for an untypical opera audience no doubt presents some difficulties, but NI Opera, in their first full production as the new local opera company, seem once again to have got the balance absolutely right. They clearly know how to reach their audience, and it’s not by talking down to either the newer, younger audience or by aiming to satisfy expectations of traditional opera-goers. Rather, as previous productions have likewise shown, there has evidently been careful consideration given to the selection of works to present, less familiar operas certainly, but ones which ultimately can reach out and engage a modern audience. The NI Opera production of Hansel and Gretel, with the Ulster Orchestra, demonstrates that this needn’t involve any artistic compromise, but that through close attention to the score and the libretto itself, trusting in the strength of the characters and in the depth that is accorded to them through Humperdinck’s score, the work can be, should be and indeed was, eerie, enchanting and engaging in equal measures for the whole audience.

RigolettoGiuseppe Verdi - Rigoletto

Scottish Opera | Tobias Ringborg, Matthew Richardson, Eddie Wade, Nadine Livingston, Edgaras Montvidas, Jonathan May, Louise Collett | Grand Opera House, Belfast - June 16, 2011

It’s hard to imagine how Verdi’s choice of Victor Hugo’s drama ‘Le Roi s’amuse’ could have caused such a stir in 1850 when it was used as the basis for his opera Rigoletto, but censorship problems would dog the composer all through his early career, partly due to the revolutionary political content of his work, but also partly due to Verdi’s headstrong challenging of authority for most of his life. One can understand to some extent that, even with the arbitrary nature of censorship that would depend on where the opera was being first performed (Verdi famously would subsequently withdraw Un ballo in maschera from Naples and take it to Rome after already being forced to make sweeping changes to its original incarnation as Gustavo III) , that the authorities wouldn’t look too kindly upon the subject of a libertine king being involved in scandalous affairs with the wives of his courtiers and being subject to a death plot, but there are other shocking events introduced to the opera stage in Rigoletto by Verdi that we take almost for granted nowadays.  A good production of this opera however should ensure that it still has an impact today.

In the end, Verdi was forced to relocate Rigoletto away from the behaviour of royalty in post-revolutionary France to Mantua in Italy, but surprisingly, he was still able to make an obvious allusion to the notoriety of Vincenzo Gonzaga, the Duke of Mantua. While Verdi might not have got away with depicting a libertine king consorting with prostitutes, a Duke indulging in that kind of behaviour on a stage was scarcely less shocking, but no more so that the fact that Verdi, who would be a great revolutionary in giving common people a voice on the opera stage, would depict anyone at all taking part in the rather sordid lowlife dealings that occur over the course of the opera’s intensely dramatic three acts. This was just not the sort of behaviour that one expected to see in an opera.

In my recent review of Macbeth, I mentioned how Verdi loved to mix political fire with the oil of relationship melodrama in his early works – Un ballo in maschera is another stormy later example of this style – but occasionally, the forumula changes in interesting ways, with Stiffelio for example combining a pot-boiling infidelity melodrama with religious rather than a political conviction and sense of duty. Rigoletto is also fascinating for its variation on a theme, where the central relationship under threat is not a romantic one (although it does have a romantic aspect), but the relationship between a father and his daughter. What is just as intriguing about the father-daughter relationship in Rigoletto is that it is not idealised, and the flawed character of Rigoletto can be seen as being fatally over-protective of his daughter, Gilda. When there is a libertine like the Duke of Mantua running around, whose reputation Rigoletto knows well as his court jester and co-conspirator, one can understand his concerns for the daughter that the brute of a man with many enemies has – and they prove to be well-founded – but the downside is that his over-protectiveness leads Gilda to react and assert her freedom of choice in a rather dramatic and tragic way.

Rigoletto

All of this adds spice to the characterisation, for while Rigoletto is certainly a blood-and-thunder Verdi melodrama (quite literally with the third-act bloodletting taking place during a thunderstorm), the composer does overturn some of the usual conventions. If Rigoletto is the standard clown, whose joking hides a sensitive disposition and whose ugliness of his deformity disguises the beauty of his love for his daughter, it’s his jealousy, his pride and his superstition (Verdi reminding us regularly of the curse that has been placed on him by Count Monterone for his complicity in the Duke’s crimes), that end up distorting the genuine love he has for his daughter. On the other hand, the villain of the piece, the Duke, manages through the privilege of his position and his handsomeness, as well as a carefree attitude, to get away with his infidelity and his use of people for his own pleasures. Rather than predictably show that all men are equal, Rigoletto emphasises rather the social inequalities that persist and how their weaknesses can be exploited by the less scrupulous – seen here in the form of the assassin, Sparafucile.

Whether these considerations really make Rigoletto anything more than a melodramatic potboiler is however difficult to justify, and indeed there’s little in Verdi’s score to suggest any greater subtleties. As a pure example of the Verdi style however, it’s a remarkably effective and superbly structured musical drama. Although it is principally concerned with introducing the characters, showing their temperaments and setting up the drama that is to later unfold, Act 1 does so most efficiently and has some fine musical moments and arias that are to reverberate through the remainder of the opera. Scottish Opera’s staging likewise tried to make this efficient as possible, viewing it not in period costume or set in Mantua (with the Marco Bellochio’s 2010 live telecast from Mantua still fresh in the mind, it could hardly compete with the real-life locations), but more like an old-fashioned cabaret or variety show, with Rigoletto in tights and pottering across the stage like Max Wall. With traditional backdrop stage-curtains and doors, chorus-line dancers and glitterballs, it set the tone well in this respect, but, like Verdi’s composition, the real test of the opera is in the second and third acts.

Rigoletto

The pivotal second act, made up of a series of stunning arias and duets, determines not only whether the singers are up to the challenge, but also whether the production is able to make it work in dramatic terms. It would be hard to get it so wrong that the drama doesn’t work – Verdi’s score is lean and strong enough on its own terms and the action well choreographed to pull it through – but thankfully, the quality of the singing and acting in Scottish Opera’s production was also up to the task. The three principal roles are all challenging, but vital, and they all need to work in common accord. Rigoletto’s lyrical baritone should ensure that it is anything but a buffone role, and Eddie Wade managed to convey the contradiction and confusion in the character’s make-up through his acting and through his fine singing performance of the role. Edgaras Montvidas came across as a little cocky and self-satisfied in his delivery as the Duke, but that’s how he ought to be. There’s a little room for early ambiguity which might not quite have been caught in his relationship with Gilda, since he has to be persuasive enough for her to trust him and fall in love with him, but elsewhere, and particularly in the famous third act aria La donna è mobile, the tone and the quality of the singing were excellent. It’s Gilda however that the opera ultimately rests upon, and although a little inexperienced, that innocent quality stood Nadine Livingston in good stead, making her predicament and fate genuinely touching and almost credible (there are limits to how convincing the denouement can be dramatically).

While it was harder to relate the relevance of the staging – an open room with a leather sofa and a glitterball littered with parts of showroom dummies in Act 2, a tilted-box representation of the inn in Act 3 – to any overall theme or concept, the choreography was fine and didn’t work against the drama. Combined with the strong singing and Verdi’s powerful score, this production hit all the right notes in all the right places, the darkness of the operas themes and its daring treatment still powerful enough for a modern day audience to in some way understand why it caused such a sensation over 150 years ago.

Mozart - La Clemenza di Tito

English Touring Opera | Richard Lewis, James Conway, Mark Wilde, Gillian Ramm, Rhona McKail, Julia Riley, Charlotte Stephenson, Philip Spendley | Grand Opera House, Belfast - May 28, 2011

Despite its position among Mozart’s compositions, his penultimate opera La Clemenza di Tito has never had the same reputation or attention given to the Mozart and Da Ponte operas that preceded it, nor has it been as highly regarded as the other final works written around the same time – the Requiem and Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute). Part of the reason for the opera’s neglect has been due to the history of its composition – it was commissioned for the coronation of the Hapsburg emperor Leopold II in 1791 – and the fact that it accordingly has a rather dry historical subject, performed moreover in the opera seria style that what was rather old-fashioned even then. While the rather dry and serious nature of the drama wasn’t entirely overcome in the English Touring Opera’s staging for their Spring 2011 tour, La Clemenza di Tito is nonetheless a late Mozart work, which means Mozart in his prime.

Perhaps not unexpectedly for Mozart, La Clemenza di Tito is a little bit more than a typical opera seria, where the action is usually limited to plot developments that take place during the dry recitative (ie. spoken dialogue), which is then meditated upon in flowery terms through long repetitive da capo arias. The problem with this is that the plot can tend to become quite complicated and, since it is mostly delivered through dialogue than action or acting, difficult to follow. There are certainly complications in the plot of La Clemenza di Tito, which deals with the history of the Roman Emperor Titus Vespasianus in 78AD, where the usual operatic love complications of trying to match up couples takes on a rather more serious aspect of political manoeuvring – but the plot – the text derived from an old Metastasio libretto that had been used many times – has been stripped back of superfluous subplots (not to mention numerous long arias), and any remaining complications are made rather more easy to follow through Mozart’s sympathetic consideration of the characters through his beautiful musical arrangements.

Tito

Principally however, the complications that arise in the plot all serve the purpose of the nature of the commission for the coronation of Leopold II, which is to show how a noble ruler should behave in the face of challenges, exercising compassion and understanding and putting his people’s interests before his own. In La Clemenza di Tito, those qualities have to be exercised by Titus immediately upon being appointed ruler, the previous despot Vitellius having just been overthrown. Aware that his consort Berenice, a Judean, is unlikely to be welcomed as his mistress, Titus sends her away and chooses to marry Servilla, the sister of his friend and comrade Sextus. Vitellia is furious at the news, as she expected to be chosen to rule alongside Titus, and she urges Sextus, who is in love with her, to stir up a rebellion against the new leader. When Titus finds out that Servilla is already betrothed to Annius, a friend of Sextus, he reconsiders and agrees to marry Vitellia, but an insurrection against Titus has already started that will require all his diplomacy and clemency to resolve.

Part of the difficulty with engaging with La Clemenza di Tito is that it is difficult to relate to the principal character of the opera. Titus, although he is certainly conflicted by the choices he has to make, and contemplates them in some very beautiful arias, does however feel more of a symbol or a model of virtue and never comes to life as a real person. As the director of the English Touring Opera’s production James Conway notes however in the programme notes “You know you can love La Clemenza di Tito if you love Sextus”, and there is some truth in this. Despite the title of the opera, it’s not Titus who in many ways is not the principal character but Sextus, and it’s the conflicts and decisions that put him in opposition to his friend and ruler that the listener needs to relate to in order for the opera to have deeper meaning. If we are to go along with that proposition, the opera needs a strong singer in the role of Sextus (a tricky proposition since it is male soprano role often sung, as here, by a female), and that is indeed marvellously achieved here in a terrific performance by Julia Riley.

This is an interesting proposition from the ETO, and placing the emphasis this way on Sextus certainly presents an alternative way of looking at the opera, but I am not entirely convinced that it is enough. Titus is a difficult character to relate to, but he can be made more sympathetic with the right singer (I’ve seen the role extremely well performed in a production at the Paris Opera some time ago), and although Mark Wilde sings well here and is appropriately soft-toned lyrical tenor for a thoughtful, considerate ruler, it’s not sufficient to convey the depth of the nature of the personal conflicts he undergoes nor the nobility and wisdom that he shows in the decisions towards the clemency that he exercises at the close of the drama. With minimal staging and a lack of dramatic action, there wasn’t any other way of making these feelings apparent, and the opera did indeed often feel like its reputation as a dry, difficult and overly-earnest work was merited. The English Touring Opera’s production, resting on the strengths of Sextus with Julia Riley in the role, did however present an interesting view on an opera that certainly merits being brought to a wider audience and that is certainly preferable to another new production of The Marriage of Figaro or Così Fan Tutte.

Giacomo Puccini - Il Tabarro & Gianni Schicchi

English Touring Opera | Michael Rosewell, James Conway. Liam Steel, Simon Thorpe, Julie Unwin, Charne Rochford, Richard Mosley-Evans, Paula Sides, Clarissa Meek, Ashley Catling, Andrew Glover, Jacqueline Varsey | Grand Opera House, Belfast - May 26, 2011

Right up to the end of his career, Puccini never allowed himself to be constrained by the limitations of traditional opera subjects or indeed the limitations of the verismo school - even though he often used literature for a source, Puccini would also draw from popular theatre and tackle contemporary subjects. Latter Puccini, for example, takes in the clash of tradition and modernity in Madama Butterfly, while La Fanciulla del West, set in the American Wild West, also sees the composer acknowledging the influence of Wagner and a new approach to musical composition for drama. His last completed work (Turandot was finished and produced posthumously), Il Trittico (1918), being composed of three short one-act operas – Il Tabarro, Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi – is in many ways a summary and consolidation of his work and themes across a range of subjects, as well as a further extension of what is possible within the operatic medium.

While there are benefits in seeing all three parts of Il Trittico performed one after another for the rich thematic and musical journey that they cover as a complementary set, each of the one-act operas stands alone, and each have very different themes and musical treatments and they are more commonly performed either a duo or singly in conjunction with another one-act opera by a different composer. All of these are valid ways of performing the operas, and it’s often in such double-bills that certain different qualities are highlighted. The English Touring Opera’s Spring 2011 programme pairs two of the operas from Il TritticoIl Tabarro and Gianni Schicchi – that present an interesting contrast in styles, but which together demonstrate the range and ability of Puccini at the end of his career.

Tabarro
Il Tabarro (The Cloak) is based on a play by Didier Gold, ‘La houpperlande‘, that Puccini saw in Paris in 1913. Set in the docklands on the banks of the Seine at the outskirts of Paris, there are certain similarities with Puccini’s other wonderful Parisian opera La Bohème in the opening scenes, where the crew of Michele and Giorgetta’s barge celebrate the unloading of their cargo with a drink and some dancing, disguising the fact temporarily that the times are hard and that tough decisions need to be made about how to continue. Set against the poverty of their situation, Frugola the wife of one of the crew Talpa who is to be laid off, still has dreams of owning a cottage in the country, while Giorgetta would love to just settle down in Paris. It’s a dream that is shared by another of the crew Luigi, who has been having a secret affair with Giorgetta. The loss of their young baby, the sense of a family that Michele would wrap within his cloak, has created a distance between the husband and wife, but also stirred dark passions.

Il Tabarro has all the elements for a romantic melodrama that is to end in violence and tragedy, but what is remarkable about the piece is that, even compressing its story into under an hour, it never manipulates the emotions quite in the same way as La Bohème, nor does it overstate through sweeping strings and overwrought arias. The Wagner influence is there in that the drama is allowed to flow without stopping for interludes, conventional arias or extraneous detail, but it’s still pure Puccini in terms of melody. While still adhering to the dramatic plot, Puccini is still able to capture the colour and flavour of Paris in the musical character, which does recall La Bohème, not least in a cheeky reference to Mimi. Even that however – the coming of spring, the hope of a new beginning – is pertinent to the drama. The touches are smaller, more subtle – a lighted candle, a lover’s encounter above – but masterfully arranged and orchestrated so that they have all the impact of a full-scale opera without the overstatement.

The English Touring Opera’s set design and direction by James Conway was similarly subtle but fully effective, evoking mood, using two levels to show the world on the docks and hints of the world above that reflects and contrasts the situation of the barge owner and his crew. It kept the focus fixed on the relationship between the characters within this intense and highly concentrated drama with gripping performances from the main cast, Simon Thorpe a dark imposing Michele, Julie Unwin a beautifully toned Giorgetta and Charne Rocheford a passionate Luigi, although his voice was occasionally overwhelmed by the orchestra.

Gianni Schicchi was inspired by a figure who appears in Dante’s Inferno, whose sin was to “dress himself up as Buoso Donati” to “draw up and sign his will”. Here, Puccini depicts him as a lawyer that the odious Donati family, faking their tears at the deathbed of the recently deceased old man Buoso Donati and angry that he has left all his wealth and property to the monastery at Signa, have engaged to find a loophole that will “correct” the mistake and give them what they believe is their due. Since no-one else is yet aware that the old man has died, Schicchi disguises himself as Buoso Donati and dictates a new will that does indeed reallocate the wealth to the family, but also bequests himself the choicest properties.

Tabarro
Even though there are few even lighthearted moments to be found in any of Puccini’s work – I can’t think of anything outside of a few moments in Act 1 and Act 2 of La Bohème – the composer takes to Gianni Schicchi with a terrific sense of its comic potential and evident black humour. Right from the start of the piece, Puccini puts the sobs of the Donati family to music in a manner that indicates that they are fake and, well, to be laughed at, and his compositions are just as inventive and sprightly elsewhere. Again, Puccini takes full advantage of the format – one would imagine that a comic piece of this type would soon tire very quickly in full-length opera. Certainly, the bel canto composers show that farce can be done at greater length – Don Pasquale, The Barber of Seville and Le Comte D’Ory come to mind as comedies that remain fizzingly entertaining throughout, but Puccini does so within his own musical idiom, while continuing to be ever inventive at propelling the action and the comedy forward.

The staging of the opera by the ETO was simply dazzling in its hilarity, playing-up the full comic potential of the short opera with additional slapstick elements that were perfectly in keeping with the musical and comic timing of the piece. All of characters were grotesque caricatures with pansticked white faces and crooked eyebrows, every gesture was measured and pronounced, but all of it serving to heighten the comedy. As a rather large ensemble piece working within the relatively confined space of a bedroom, everything was nonetheless choreographed to perfection under Liam Steel’s direction. At any given time there would be something funny going on in every corner – although the upper level, to where Schicchi’s innocent daughter Lauretta was banished during all the devious scheming, didn’t feel quite as appropriate here as when it was used for Il Tabarro. It’s Lauretta who gets the most notable aria in Gianni Schicchi (“O mio babbino caro”), admirably delivered by Paula Sides, and although it’s also worth noting Richard Mosley-Evans fine performance as the lawyer Schicchi himself, every one of the cast acquitted themselves marvellously.

The performances of Il Tabarro and Gianni Schicchi at the Grand Opera House in Belfast were the final shows of the English Touring Opera Spring tour. The Royal Opera House in Covent Garden however will be staging performances of all three operas in a new production of Puccini’s Il Trittico from September 2011.

The ETO’s Autumn tour features three Baroque operas (Handel’s Flavio, Xerxes and Purcell’s The Fairy Queen). Tour dates can be found on the English Touring Opera’s website.