Tuesday 16 March 2021

A Clemenza for our times: Mozart's final opera in a stripped back production live streamed from Bergen

Mozart: La Clemenza di Tito - Adrian Angelico, Bror Magnus Tødenes, Beate Mordal - Bergen National Opera (Photo Bergen National Opera)
Mozart: La Clemenza di Tito - Adrian Angelico, Bror Magnus Tødenes, Beate Mordal - Bergen National Opera (Photo Bergen National Opera)

Mozart La Clemenza di Tito; Bergen National Opera, Rodula Gaitanou, Edward Gardner; Grieghallen, Bergen

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 15 March 2021
A stripped back production, a director working remotely and a young Norwegian cast, but Mozart's final opera retains its extraordinary power

Bergen National Opera's new production of Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito which was live-streamed from Grieghallen in Bergen last night (15 March 2021) was very much a production for our times. Originally planned for last year with an international cast, the production finally went ahead this year in a stripped-back form, recast with young Norwegian singers and directed remotely by Rodula Gaitanou! Edward Gardner conducted the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra with Bror Magnus Tødenes as Tito, Beate Mordal as Vitellia, Adrian Angelico as Sesto, Ingeborg Gillebo as Annio, Frøy Hovland Holtbakk as Servilia, and Christian Valle as Publio, with the Edvard Grieg Kor (chorus master Håkon Matti Skrede) who were relayed from a separate room. Designs were by Cordelia Chisholm with lighting by Simon Corder and Ivar Skjørestad

The setting was modern, how could it not be, with a very stripped back look with hardly a note of colour. Act One took place against a narrow backdrop of an office, where cast members not performing sat. It was only in Act Two that the physical space seemed to expand, as the characters' world fractured. Opera seria is very much a genre for our times, requiring few cast members and concentrating on personal relationships rather than dramatic action and historical settings. Whilst Metastasio's libretto was modernised for Mozart, trimming the work and creating the ensembles that Mozart liked in operas, La Clemenza di Tito is still an opera seria, a genre that Mozart had last addressed in Idomeneo which premiered ten years earlier in 1781, but which clearly still fascinated him. The essentials of the plot are highly relevant too, as the central moral dilemmas of the piece circle around what type of ruler we really want.

Gaitanou's production made a virtue of necessity and concentrated on the interpersonal relationships in a very abstract space. We saw the characters as individuals separated physically as well as mentally from each other. And after all, the engine of the plot is the fact that many of the characters entirely fail to say what they really feel, whilst Tito confuses by being direct and refreshingly honest.

Having a young cast rather re-focused things too and the casting was quite innovative.

Beate Mordal who sang Vitellia is a lyric coloratura but still able to produce plenty of strong tone in Vitellia's final aria which sits notoriously low for a soprano. Having a voice with such bright flexibility to it in the role gave Vitellia a youthful feeling, rather than being scheming she was in many ways just as uncertain as Sesto. Mordal made that final aria almost touching at time, and she is one of the few performers in the role that have made Vitellia almost sympathetic.

Mozart: La Clemenza di Tito - Bergen National Opera (Photo Bergen National Opera)
Mozart: La Clemenza di Tito - Bergen National Opera (Photo Bergen National Opera)

As Sesto, mezzo-soprano Adrian Angelico brought a classical dignity to the role. Angelico (who was assigned female gender at birth and who transitioned some years ago but retains his mezzo-soprano voice) made an appealing Sesto, singing with fluidity and a lovely feeling for line, at times there was almost something Gluckian about his performance. But there was also never any doubt that this young man burned with intensity for Vitellia. 

In the title role, Bror Magnus Tødenes brought a brightly focused voice with a nice edge to it and a feeling of engagement with the character, though occasionally his passage-work felt rather laboured. It is often difficult to feel complete sympathy with Tito's moral dilemmas and he can seem something of a prosy bore, but Tødenes made him appealing and youthful in way which helped.

The role of Annio can sometime seem something of a dummy run for Sesto, but Ingeborg Gillebo made him a real character, youthful and passionate but not entirely sure of himself. Whilst Frøy Hovland Holtbakk made a charming Servilia making you wish we heard more of her. Christian Valle provided fine support, and brought a sense of upstanding dignity to Publio.

One of the glories of the opera, apart from the two great arias and lots of terrific music, are the ensembles which Mozart and his librettist (Caterino Mazzolà who revised Metastasio's text) created in a way which seems to flow naturally from the action. And here the singers brought a beautifully balanced sense to all the ensembles, no-one dominating so that they became moments of real dialogue. Evidently some of the roles were only cast at a few weeks notice, but you never felt that, the performance was finely considered.

Despite being unseen, the chorus made a strong contribution to the piece making a smooth even sound.  From the very outset, Edward Gardner's speeds were fleet and seemingly took no prisoners, but his orchestra responded magnificently and played with style and elan. It wasn't HIP, but it was Mozart in the modern manner and all the better for it. I would loved to have heard this live. The singers were equally adept at following Gardner's lead, and the arias and ensembles were finely fluid with fast passagework holding few terrors. Yet the piece never felt rushed or hurried, it had a classical dignity too.

Despite the warnings of it being stripped down, I enjoyed the production immensely. Rodula Gaitanou's interaction with the singers might have been done remotely, but there was a clear sense of thought and deliberation to what was presented. What we experienced was far more than a super-charged concert performance. When things have returned to a semblance of normality I do hope that Bergen National Opera invites Gaitanou and the cast back to revisit the production. They deserve it. 

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