Vancouver Opera La Clemenza di Tito
In Italian with English Surtitles
Music by W. A. Mozart Libretto by Caterino Mazzolà after Pietro Metastasio
Dates and Venue 5, 8, 10, 12 February 2011 at 7:30pm | Queen Elizabeth Theatre
Vitellia Wendy Nielsen Sesto Krisztina Szabó Annio Norine Burgess Publio Thomas Goerz Tito John Tessier Servilia Kathleen Brett
Conductor Jonathan Darlington Director Chas Rader-Shieber Set and Costume Designer David Zinn Lighting Designer Gerald King Associate Conductor & Chorus Director Leslie Dala Stage Manager Sheila Munn
Reviewer Elizabeth Paterson
A bare stage and a monochrome set only occasionally splashed with colour made the spare background for Mozart’s most contemplative opera about the use of power, the loneliness of command and the relationship between a ruler and the ruled.
The back-story and the plot would have been well-known to Mozart’s audience. The historical Titus was renowned for his generosity in helping the victims of the great eruption of Mount Vesuvius and of the catastrophic fire which destroyed great swathes of the city Rome. His romance with Queen Berenice of Judea, hugely unpopular in Rome, and how he was compelled to renounce her on becoming Emperor had been the stuff of European art and literature for more than a century. But the tale of the conspiracy against Tito’s life by his friend Sesto and Vitellia, daughter of a previous emperor, is the theme which Mozart and his librettist chose to highlight.
Vitellia, a woman scorned, was dashingly played by Wendy Nielsen. Her voice was strong if slightly inelegant and had there been more scenery she would have chewed it most effectively. Vitellia shamelessly manipulates her hapless lover Sesto (Krisztina Szabo) into stirring up a revolt and ultimately murdering Tito (John Tessier). Mozart wrote a virtuoso part for this beleaguered man, torn by debilitating love for Vitellia on the one hand and by a lifetime of friendship with Titus on the other. Szabo’s sensitive and intelligent singing brilliantly negotiated the coloratura passages and explored the real pathos of Sesto’s plight, but she did not quite make Sesto tormented rather than vacillating.
The quickly-resolved sub-plot concerns Tito’s choice of Sesto’s sister Servilia as his bride, not knowing that Servilia and his friend, Annio are in love. Noreen Burgess (Annio) and Kathleen Brett (Servilia) brought sparkle and warmth to this charming, open couple. Servilia frankly explains the situation to Tito, who promptly releases her.
He settles next on Vitellia as his Empress, thereby freely granting her all she has schemed for. Alas, it is too late to halt the plot: Sesto incites the mob to set fire to Rome and, it seems, fatally stabs Tito. The Emperor, however, lives. Sesto is tried by the Senate and sentenced to death. Tito now must sign the death warrant.
John Tessier is an impressive Tito, effortlessly conveying a sincere desire to rise above conventional behaviour. Like Sesto, Tito is torn between extreme emotion and adherence to his principles. Even the reliable Publio, a steady Thomas Goerz, advises him the decree, though terrible, is just. Ultimately though the Emperor chooses against ruling through fear and all are pardoned.
The Chorus, directed by Leslie Dala, and the orchestra performed with a clear Mozartean style and neo-classical restraint. In particular Ariel Barnes’ cello provided a responsive underpinning to the recitatives, and it was an especial pleasure to hear Maestro Darlington on the forte-piano. There was also some dazzling clarinet playing.
The costumes of the principals were essentially 18th century. In Act II, the solid black worn by the two pairs of lovers in Act I was reversed for white, a clever device which played on the many parallels and instances of dramatic irony in the text. The Chorus, variously citizens, patricians, senators or guards were dressed in an abstract of togas and robes, brightly coloured.
There were a couple of fixable problems: in balance when the singers could not be heard well and in the lighting, by Gerald King, when they could not be seen well. The special effects as Rome burned were too formalized to be emotive.
Overall this intelligent and restrained production by the well-tried team of director Chas Rader-Shieber and designer David Zinn should have let the music and the story work their magic. Despite excellent singing, beautiful playing and very good acting it failed to come to life.
© 2011 Elizabeth Paterson