Tuesday 18 March 2014

Opera seria from the master of comedy: La clemenza di Tito

Gillian Ramm
Gillian Ramm
Mozart La clemenza di Tito: Classical Opera, Ian Page: Cadogan Hall
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on Mar 13 2014
Star rating: 3.5

Stylish outing for Mozart's final opera seria

Classical Opera led by Ian Page presented a concert performance of Mozart’s rarely heard La clemenza di Tito at the Cadogan Hall last night (13 March).
Helen Sherman
Helen Sherman
Written as a commission for Leopold II’s coronation as King of Bohemia in September 1791 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) wrote La clemenza di Tito while he was in the middle of writing The Magic Flute – and it was his downfall. Mozart was not even first choice to write the opera. Domenico Guardasoni who was arranging the production first approached Antonio Salieri (1750-1825), who was too busy to write an opera in the two months left before the coronation date.

Unlike the Magic Flute this was to be ‘opera seria’ – serious opera for a serious occasion. Mozart called it ‘opera vera’ – true opera, because it was based in historical fact. The original libretto (1743) was one of many heroic stories set by Pietro Metastasio (1698-1782). Metastasio was very popular at the time eventually becoming poet laureate to the imperial court in Vienna. The three act opera was reduced to two, by Caterino Mazzolà (1745-1806), by cutting out one scene completely, and by combining arias to form duets and trios.

It has been said that Mozart wrote Tito in 18 days. This may be an exaggeration but he certainly did not have much time to complete it because Guardasoni only received his commission on the 8 July, wasted time with Salieri, and by the 25 August Mozart was already travelling to Prague to meet the cast and musicians, who would need time to learn the new work. While in Prague Mozart became ill. Returning home he finished The Magic Flute but by 5 December 1791, aged only 35, he was dead.

Mozart would have known some of the cast but Vitellia (Maria Marchetti Fantozzi) and Sesto (the castrato Domenico Bedini) were new to Guardasoni’s company. Once in Prague Mozart wrote the arias but gave the recitative to his student Franz Xavier Süssmayr to write. Clarinettist Anton Stadler (for whom Mozart wrote his clarinet quintet and concerto) was to perform so Tito included solos which exploit the low registers of the clarinet.

Tito was originally meant to be performed by tenor Andrew Kennedy but due to illness he was replaced by Robert Murray. During the first act Murray’s Tito was bland, but the character of Tito really does not give the performer much to go on - Metastasio and Mozart were at pains to show Tito as a kind and just ruler. Even in the second half finding out that his soon to be wife and best friend were plotting to kill him barely registered emotionally. Maybe in a costume and able to strut about the stage Murray may have been able to offset the music and appear more of a leader.

Bass Darren Jeffery who played the captain of Tito’s guard, Publio, was nicely suspicious and blustering by turns but, similarly to Murray, he had little to work with.

The main music and almost all the action was given to the ladies – each of them passionately crossed in love. Gillian Ramm’s Vitellia was angry and jealous, verging on psychotic, as she plotted to kill Tito, yet contrite when she realised her mistake. Her partner in crime Sesto, performed by Helen Sherman was proud and confused as (s)he carried out his quixotic mistress’ orders. Hanna Hipp played Annio, Sesto’s friend and his(her) love interest Servilia was performed by Mary Bevan.

Hipp and Sherman especially were mesmerizing to watch and both had very clear low notes which came though, even in their duets where low notes can sometimes be lost. I am glad that Classical opera used ladies rather than counter tenor as the ladies’ voices all blended beautifully without the stridency in the upper notes which can occur when using men.

Ramm and Bevan’s parts had most of Mozart’s attention and consequently the fanciest music (even though Servilia’s last solo seemed like an afterthought to appease the original 18th century performer). However unlike the Magic Flute, Tito has little in the way of tunes – remember this is opera seria. Many of the arias are rather short and do not have the scale and brilliance we might expect from Mozart’s comic operas.

Instead there are themes, such as the regal brass and timpani motifs used to indicate Tito, and colour, for example the clarinet solos supporting some arias denoting the overwrought emotional state of the singer, or the agitated strings when Vitellia realises that she has ordered a hit on the man who wants to marry her.

The orchestra used period instruments - the brass were all valve-less and the woodwind were made of wood and their warm tones helped balance the singing in a big square venue like Cadogan Hall. Ian Page and his eagle eye on the singers kept everything together through lots of changes in tempo and orchestration. Some sections near the start felt as though they were dragging but this settled down quickly. The instrumental solos were nicely done, particularly the clarinet performed by Jane Booth.

You have to feel sorry for Tito. Girl number one (Berenice) is not Roman - so he is not allowed to marry her. Girl number two (Servilia) is in love with someone else (Annio) and girl number three (Vitellia) tries to kill him.

There are different accounts of the première of Tito. Ian Page the conductor/artistic director of Classical Opera said that it was not well received, others that it had a ‘mounting success’, and Wikipedia claims it ‘remained popular for many years after Mozart’s death’. Having seen this performance by Classical Opera at Cadogan Hall I can see why it is not performed more often. That is not to say that I did not enjoy it – I found it captivating. From a slow start, and despite not liking the limited scope of the concert performance, I was hooked into the story. But once you know the story there is little in it to want to revisit time and time again.
Reviewed by Hilary Glover
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