Tuesday 25 May 2021

Riveting drama: La Clemenza di Tito returns to Covent Garden after a near 20-year gap

Mozart: La Clemenza di Tito - Nicole Chevalier, Angela Brower, George Freeburn, Joshua Bloom, Jeremy White - Royal Opera House (Photo ROH/Clive Barda)
Mozart: La Clemenza di Tito - Nicole Chevalier, Angela Brower, George Freeburn, Joshua Bloom, Jeremy White - Royal Opera House (Photo ROH/Clive Barda)

Mozart La Clemenza di Tito; Edgaras Montvidas, Emily d'Angelo, Nicole Chevalier, Angela Brower, Christina Gansch, Joshua Bloom, dir: Richard Jones, cond: Mark Wigglesworth; Royal Opera

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 23 May 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
The Royal Opera's return to large-scale opera was a strikingly modern, yet supremely intelligent take on Mozart's wondrous but problematic late work

Something about Mozart's La Clemeza di Tito seems to appeal to opera companies in the present climate. A new production was live-streamed from Bergen National Opera in March [see my review] and last month National Opera (based in Canberra, Australia) was launched with a production which featured soprano Helena Dix at Vitella. And now, the Royal Opera House has woken from its long slumber to welcome audiences with a new production (the company's first for nearly 20 years).

On Sunday 23 May 2021 we caught the final performance of Richard Jones' new production of Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito at Covent Garden, conducted by Mark Wigglesworth with Edgaras Montvidas as Titus, Emily D'Angelo as Sextus, Nicole Chevalier as Vitellia, Angela Brower as Annius, Christina Gansch as Servilia and Joshua Bloom as Publius. The designs were by Ultz with lighting by Adam Silverman.

Despite the recent gap, the opera has an important place in Covent Garden history. Anthony Besch's 1974 production (which was revived regularly until 1989) played an important role in the 20th century's rediscovery of this work, and it was one of the productions which the company took to Italy for its first ever residency at La Scala, Milan with Janet Baker as Vitellia.

Richard Jones' approach to the opera was never going to be straight-forward, but he is not a director to willfully adjust operatic dramaturgy.

In this production, as in many of his iconic ones, he relied on unconventional iconography to accentuate aspects of the work. Metastasio's original libretto for La Clemenza di Tito was written in 1734, and is a classic opera seria black box plot - put a group of characters in a closed situation and explore what happens. It is about character, emotion and morality rather than action, but Mozart's version with a newly revised text introduces far more light and shade, and dramaturgical imperative thanks to the creation of a series of dramatic ensembles where none existed before. 

Mozart: La Clemenza di Tito - Emily d'Angelo, Nicole Chevalier - Royal Opera House (Photo ROH/Clive Barda)
Mozart: La Clemenza di Tito - Nicole Chevalier, Angela Brower, George Freeburn, Joshua Bloom, Jeremy White - Royal Opera House (Photo ROH/Clive Barda)

During the overture, we saw Sesto (Emily D'Angelo) playing football watched by Tito (Edgaras Montvidas) and his bride, Berenice (Fumi Kaneko). One's first reaction was, what on earth has football got to do with La Clemenza di Tito? But as the first act progressed, something of Jones' raison d'etre became clear. 

The production introduced considerations of class and xenophobia into the closed box plot; Jones never forced things, but he made us consider the reasons and the back stories behind the actions of his characters. Making Sesto a footballer gave him the sort of celebrity which would attract a dictator of a tin-pot country such as this Tito, and as if to emphasise this difference in class, Sesto's sister Servilia (Christina Gansch) ran some sort of delicatessen or catering business. In other words, not the sort of person you would want the emperor marrying. Similarly, by having Berenice sensitively played by Japanese ballet dancer Fumi Kaneko (a member of the Royal Ballet), suggested at the underlying xenophobia (or even racism) implicit in the people's rejection of Berenice as a wife to Tito. We have lots of contemporary topics here, but the strength of Jones' production was that having laid things out, he largely left it to the audience members to think things through.

The iconography of the production was stylish and modern, though not luxurious, and this Tito was a far cry from the high-tech business leader in Bergen. Here Tito went around with three henchmen (Joshua Bloom, Jeremy White and George Freeburn) and was it accident or design that the three looked like Richard Griffths (at his most intimidating) and Gilbert and George? The chorus were off-stage and by the end, you wondered whether they might simply be in Tito's head.

Within this intriguing set-up the drama unfolded with real clarity. My only real moan is that we got lots of mobile scenery, so that each scene or aria had a different setting, which involved rather a lot of cutting to the drop curtain and the profound annoyance of the noise of moving scenery during an aria. But the effect was to create a filmic sense of dramatic progression. This told particularly in the recitatives, which were gripping and unusually in this opera (where Mozart farmed the writing of the recitatives to a pupil) the interplay of the drama really held our attention, with even the hint of a thriller underlying everything.

This was strong, young cast with lithe voices put stylishly in service of the drama which meant that we had plenty of good passagework and finely executed lines. Nicole Chevalier, whom we last saw in the coloratura role of Princess Eudoxie in Halevy's La Juive at Flanders Opera [see my review], might have seemed somewhat a surprising choice in the tricky role of Vitellia (with its famously wide tessitura). But Chevalier, who looked and acted rather like actress Gillian Anderson, created a richly complex character, something of a bitch with a heart. A strong performance culminated in a striking performance of Vitellia's final aria, though the famous low notes challenged her somewhat, which she and Jones turned into something of a mad scene. Vitella is a mass of contradictions, and rather than trying to resovled them Chevalier simply went for it and was simply thrilling.

As the love-lorn Sesto, Emily d'Angelo really looked and felt like a late-teenage boy. Her physical behaviour, including some very striking tics at moments of high emotion, was engagingly convincing and she mirrored this in the impulsiveness of her singing. This Sesto wasn't so much a love-lorn idiot, but an impulsive, young man (almost too young they seemed to be suggesting), in way over his head. And I liked the way that D'Angelo never pushed the vocal line around, no matter how much pressure Sesto was under.

Edgaras Montvidas has quite a sense of high-tension drama in his voice which meant this Tito combined a feeling of lyricism with a real neurotic intensity, and the neuroses only increased as his dilemma about Sesto developed. Yet underlying this there was a strength of line too, you felt that he wasn't wimp despite his obsession with clemency. By the end and Montvidas' grinning victory lap round the stage, it seemed that Tito's time in charge was going to be very limited.

The role of Annio can sometimes feel like a dry run for Sesto (sing Annio this year, and graduate to Sesto next) but Angela Brouwer gave him style and backbone, a definite strong character. And this strength was clearly shared by Annio's sister Servilia where Christina Gansch made her strikingly self-possessed yet brought a touching simplicity to her aria to Vitellia at the end.

Joshua Bloom was fine support as henchman Publio, and the Royal Opera Chorus seemed to emanate from various parts of the house, a disembodied, somewhat muffled presence.

Mark Wigglesworth conducted a reduced orchestra, yet brought an amplitude of sound to the work. Speeds were sensible, and there was never any doubt about the style, but I had wished that he and the orchestra would have relished the chamber forces more, and brought a lithe edge to the music to match the production. 

The perfect production of La Clemenza di Tito does not exist, but this one satisfied on many counts. As ever with Jones, the production was full of neat details which resonated with the plot and with the music. Whilst he and Wigglesworth drew engrossing performances from all the cast, it was the overall feeling that we were watching a riveting drama which counted.

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