Sunday 11 June 2023

Mozart's late masterpiece: La Clemenza di Tito from Chelsea Opera Group with Helena Dix and Kezia Bienek

Mozart: La Clemenza di Tito - Helena Dix as Vitellia - National Opera, Canberra, Australia 2021 (photo: Peter Hislop)
Mozart: La Clemenza di Tito - Helena Dix as Vitellia - National Opera, Canberra, Australia 2021 (photo: Peter Hislop)

Mozart: La Clemenza di Tito; Helena Dix, Kezia Bienek, Polly Leech, Ben  Thapa, Ellie Laugharne, Simon Wilding, Chelsea Opera Group, conductor Paul Wingfield; Cadogan Hall

A strong cast and a fine conductor lift a concert performance of Mozart's last masterpiece into something special

There was a lot going on in the opera world on 10 June 2023, what with new productions opening at Glyndebourne (Poulenc's Carmelites), Grange Park (Puccini's Tosca) and Opera Holland Park (Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel). Chelsea Opera Group gamely presented its Summer offering at Cadogan Hall, with a top-notch cast that would be the envy of many and opera festival. Paul Wingfield conducted, with Helena Dix as Vitellia (a role she sang to much acclaim with the National Opera in Australia in 2021), Kezia Bienek as Sesto, Polly Leech as Annio, Ellie Laugharne as Servilia, and Simon Wilding as Publio. Christopher Turner had been due to sing Tito but had to withdraw and he was replaced at the last minute by Ben Thapa.

La Clemenza di Tito is effectively Mozart's last opera, and whilst the libretto was not his choice it is clear from his treatment of it that, ten years after writing Idomeneo, the composer was still interested in the challenge of bringing opera seria up to date. He had given a concert performance of Idomeneo in Vienna in 1786 and had had plans to reshape that into a rather more Gluckian form. So, in many ways, it is a pity that Mozart did not have longer to write La Clemenza di Tito, the secco recitatives are by someone else and you feel that Mozart might have done more reshaping if he had had time. 

Using a smaller than usual orchestra, Paul Wingfield drew stylish playing with an overture that brought out the music's vitality and urgency. This was modern instrument Mozart, but it was slim-line and lithe, with none of the fat richness of big symphonic performance of his music. 

Wingfield conducted, whilst Oliver John Ruthven provided the fortepiano recitatives. Recitative is the bane of concert performance, to get the flow of the drama feeling natural requires significant work; with a staging, cast have a long sequence of rehearsals to hone the drama. Here, things were admirably free and impulsive, there was little that was careful and considered, instead the cast all worked hard to give us a sense of drama. Ruthven's continuo was responsive, yet discreet, he supported and responded but without drawing attention to himself.

This was one of those concert performances where the drama lifts off from the simple static. Throughout, all the cast were responsive and the recitatives were full of movements and glances, little asides adding to the drama and this carried over into the arias and ensembles. Despite having minimal space on stage, the cast remarkably created a strong sense of the work's drama and narrative.

Ben Thapa made a vivid Tito, anxious from the word go and really bringing out the character's dilemma. His big Act Two aria was finely done, and there was little sense of this being a last-minute stand in, the performance was confident and fully formed.

Helena Dix's Vitellia was a real piece of work. From the outset, she was wonderfully self-regarding and Dix emphasised these elements of the character. You can play Vitellia as nobly hard done by, but there was none of that here. Only at the very end, did this Vitellia achieve some sort of classical dignity. It helped that Dix's voice is lithe and mobile, yes she has played Lady Macbeth (in Australia) and Norma (at the Met), but she did not give us big guns. This was a stylish and engaging account, with lots to enjoy in the way she shaped the music and ornament to the character. This culminated in a terrific account of "Non più di fiori" which was remarkably lightly done at times, but responsive and moving with a fine attack on the famous low notes.

Kezia Bienek made a terrific foil as a poised Sesto. Shaping the music with light, easy tone, she was responsive and intense. "Parto, parto" made a superb start to things, Bienek moving stylishly through the music complemented by Alan Maries' fine basset clarinet solo (and Maries was equally impressive in the basset horn solo in Vitellia's "Non più di fiori"). Things were just as impressive in Sesto's big Act Two aria,  "Deh, per questo istante solo", with Bienek stylish and intense, yet never trying to push the music into something more late romantic. This was an impressive account of the role and one that I would be very keen to experience on stage.

Polly Leech, who sings the role of the Composer in Garsington Opera's new production of Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos, was equally impressive in the role of Annio. Youthful and ardent at first, as the drama developed, Leech used the richness of her voice to bring out Annio's depth of feeling, yet always Leech shaped the music superbly. This was a confident and stylish performance, demonstrating a voice that had a hint of rich luxury about the tone.

Ellie Laugharne was luxury casting as Servilia, she was delightfully response in her recitatives, moving and stylish in her lovely aria, "S'altro che lagrime". Simon Wilding as Publio was nicely trenchant and gave a finely robust account of his aria.

The chorus do not get a lot to do, but their role is important and the Chelsea Opera Group chorus did the work, and their chorus director Lindsay Bramley, much credit.

Throughout, you sensed that Wingfield was controlling and shaping, and it is very much to his credit that he managed to weld his diverse cast, non-professional chorus and orchestra into a compelling drama with plenty of style and lots to enjoy.

Never miss out on future posts by following us

The blog is free, but I'd be delighted if you were to show your appreciation by buying me a coffee.

Elsewhere on this blog

  • Verdi's Rigoletto: Opera Holland Park's opening production for 2023 with Elgan Llyr Thomas as the Duke - opera review
  • Simplicity is one of the hardest things to do: composer Debbie Wiseman on the challenges of writing music and introducing her new disc, Signature interview
  • Ida revealed: John Wilson & the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment take a fresh look at Gilbert & Sullivan's unjustly neglected opera, Princess Ida - opera review
  • Terrific and intensely atmospheric: the String Quartet No. 1 and Piano Quintet by Olli Mustonen from the Engegård Quartet and the composer on LAWO Classics - record review
  • Because: in a slightly unlikely but completely seductive pairing, countertenor Reginald Mobley is joined by jazz pianist/composer Baptiste Trotignon - record review
  • Dennis & Gnasher: Unleashed at the OrchestraA more than enjoyable event celebrating The Beano with Colin Currie and the BBC Concert Orchestra - concert review
  • When all is said and done, his passport simply says that he is a musician: I chat to composer & multi-instrumentalist Richard Harvey about his new disc of choral music - interview
  • Reduced forces, but heightened drama: an intimate, chamber production of Wagner's Die Walküre from Regents Opera - opera review
  • Style, imagination & not a little daring: a new staging of Handel's Saul at Berlin's Komische Oper - opera review
  • No ordinary evening: Christof Loy directs Zandonai's Francesca da Rimini at the Deutsche Oper Berlin with Sara Jakubiak & Jonathan Tetelman - opera review
  • The story is 40 years old but nothing much has changed about women's rights in the region: Bushra El-Turk on her opera Woman at Point Zero which comes to Covent Garden next month - interview:
  • Home

No comments:

Post a Comment

Popular Posts this month