Conway, James

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.


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.

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.

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.