Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.







Recently in Performances

The Nose: Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

“If I lacked ears, it would be bad, but still more bearable; but lacking a nose, a man is devil knows what: not a bird, not a citizen—just take and chuck him out the window!”

Věc Makropulos in San Francisco

A fixation on death at San Francisco Opera. A 337 year-old woman gave it all up just now after only six years since she last gave it all up on the War Memorial stage.

The Pearl Fishers at English National Opera

Penny Woolcock's 2010 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers returned to English National Opera (ENO) for its second revival on 19 October 2018. Designed by Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) the production remains as spectacular as ever, and ENO fielded a promising young cast with Claudia Boyle as Leila, Robert McPherson as Nadir and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga, plus James Creswell as Nourabad, conducted by Roland Böer.

Academy of Ancient Music: The Fairy Queen at the Barbican Hall

At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus delivers a speech which returns to the play’s central themes: illusion, art and the creative imagination. The sceptical king dismisses ‘The poet’s vision - his ‘eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ - which ‘gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name’; such art, and theatre, is a psychological deception brought about by an excessive, uncontrolled imagination.

Vaughan Williams and Friends: St John's Smith Square

Following the success of previous ‘mini-festivals’ at St John’s Smith Square devoted to Schubert and Schumann, last weekend pianist Anna Tilbrook curated a three-day exploration of the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. The music performed in these six concerts was chosen to reflect the changing contexts in which it was composed and to reveal the vast changes in society, politics and culture which occurred during Vaughan Williams’ long life-time (1872-1958) and which shaped his life and creative output.

Bloodless Manon Lescaut at DNO

Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure, this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left much to be desired.

English Touring Opera: Xerxes

It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.

English National Opera: Tosca

Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them.

Don Pasquale in San Francisco

With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).

“Written in fire”: Momenta Quartet blazes through an Indonesian chamber opera

“Yang sementara tak akan menahan bintang hilang di bimasakti; Yang bergetar akan terhapus.” (“The transient cannot hold on to stars lost in the Milky Way; that which quivers will be erased.”) As soprano Tony Arnold sang these words of Tony Prabowo’s chamber opera Pastoral, with astonishingly crisp Indonesian diction, the first night of the second annual Momenta Festival approached its end.

English National Opera: Don Giovanni

Some operas seemed designed and destined to raise questions and debates - sometimes unanswerable and irresolvable, and often contentious. Termed a dramma giocoso, Mozart’s Don Giovanni has, historically, trodden a movable line between seria and buffa.

World Premiere Eötvös, Wigmore Hall, London

Péter Eötvös’ The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.

Manitoba Underground Opera: Mozart and Offenbach

Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera between August 19–26.

Stars of Lyric Opera 2016, Millennium Park, Chicago

On a recent weekend Lyric Opera of Chicago gave its annual concert at Millennium Park during which the coming season and its performers are variously showcased. Several of the performers, who were featured at this “Stars of Lyric Opera” event, are scheduled to make their debuts in Lyric Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold beginning on 1 October.

Così fan tutte at Covent Garden

Desire and deception; Amor and artifice. In Jan Philipp Gloger’s new production of Così van tutte at the Royal Opera House, the artifice is of the theatrical, rather than the human, kind. And, an opera whose charm surely lies in its characters’ amiable artfulness seems more concerned to underline the depressing reality of our own deluded faith in human fidelity and integrity.

Plácido Domingo as Macbeth, LA Opera

On September 22, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented Darko Tresnjak’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave based their opera on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.

The Rake’s Progress: an Opera for Our Time

On September 18th, at a casual Sunday matinee, Pacific Opera Project presented a surprising choice for a small company. It was Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 three act opera, The Rake’s Progress. It’s a piece made for today's supertitles with its exquisitely worded libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.

Classical Opera: Haydn's La canterina

We are nearing the end of Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 sojourn through 1766, a year that the company’s artistic director Ian Page admits was ‘on face value … a relatively fallow year’. I’m not so sure: Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso, performed at the Cadogan Hall in April, was a gem. But, then, I did find the repertoire that Classical Opera offered at the Wigmore Hall in January, ‘worthy rather than truly engaging’ (review). And, this programme of Haydn and his Czech contemporary Josef Mysliveček was stylishly executed but did not absolutely convince.

Dream of the Red Chamber in San Francisco

Globalization finds its way ever more to San Francisco Opera where Italian composer Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara saw the light of day in 2015 and now, 2016, Chinese composer Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber has been created.

San Diego Opera Opens with Recital by Piotr Beczala

Renowned Polish tenor Piotr Beczala and well-known collaborative pianist Martin Katz opened the San Diego Opera 2016–2017 season with a recital at the Balboa Theater on Saturday, September 17th.



Susan Graham as Sesto (Clemenza di Tito) [Photo: Marty Sohl courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera]
13 May 2008

Ponnelle Clemenza remains a masterpiece

Opera companies should practice historic preservation, keeping certain productions forever in the repertory because of their quality and aesthetic value.

W. A. Mozart: La Clemenza di Tito

Above: Susan Graham as Sesto
All photos by Marty Sohl courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera


Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s 1984 staging of La Clemenza di Tito that returned to the stage of New York’s Metropolitan Opera in May would be an obvious candidate for such preservation.

The opening scene of this production of Mozart’s last opera is sufficient to identify Ponnelle as a major master of his profession. Clemenza, the last significant work of opera seria, is a work mammoth both in its dimensions and its emotions. Ponnelle’s recreation of first-century Rome at its colossal height brings to mind Winckelmann’s characterization of the art of antiquity as “noble simplicity and calm grandeur.”

CLEMENZA_Iveri_as_Vitellia_.pngTamar Iveri as Vitellia
Ponnelle’s Rome — it fills the Met’s mammoth stage — is grand in its columns, arches, balconies and stairs, and if a certain amount of decay is evident, these fissures are only a reflection of the dysfunctional figures in this drama of treachery and treason, all more interesting as character studies than as living humans. For in opera seria it is the drama within that is of the essence, and arias are largely confessional. Play the first scene of Don Giovanni on an empty stage in street clothes and you have more absorbing action than in the entire three hours of Clemenza.

Happily Ponnelle understood this and designed sets and beautifully painted, luminous scrims that are drained of color and serve as a perfect environment for the half a dozen ill-focused people all seemingly in love with an inappropriate — or unavailable — mate.

Only recently has Clemenza, written for the 1791 Prague coronation of Joseph II of Austria as emperor of Bohemia, come to be regarded as worthy of staging. For over a century, scholars apologized for the opera — a by-product of The Magic Flute and the Requiem, a work written in great haste. Some accounts assert that Mozart composed it in 18 days and assigned the recitatives to his pupil Franz Xaver Süssmayr. The fact that opera seria was already out of fashion when Mozart wrote Clemenza further complicates its place in history.

CLEMENZA_Vargas_as_Tito_151.pngRamón Vargas as Tito
All this was no problem for Ponnelle, who recognized the quality of the music that Mozart had written and took his cues from the score in making the opera an impressing experience on stage. For the revival the Met came up with an ideal cast that — no matter what the title says — was headed by Susan Graham, who — now in her late 40s — remains the reigning mezzo of her generation. As Sesto, Graham’s combination of vocal and acting gifts — plus her stature of almost six feet — makes it difficult to see this best friend — and almost assassin — of Emperor Tito as the weak-willed courtier described in opera guides.

Magnificent in everything she does, Graham stole the show in the packed performance on May 6 and no doubt did much to inspire those on stage with her. (For the Prague premiere castrato Domenico Bedini was brought from Italy to sing Sesto.)

CLEMENZA_Grant_Murphy_Iveri.pngHeidi Grant Murphy (Servilia), Tamar Iveri (Vitellia) and Anke Vondung (Annio)
Ramón Vargas, the Met’s Rodolfo of the season, brought baritone heft to his portrayal of Tito, whose ability to forgive even those who would have killed him gives the opera its title.

Most difficult figure in the cast is Vitellia, the rotten apple without whom there would be no story. (The worm at her core was planted there, of course, by Tito, who unjustly usurped power from Vitellia’s father.) For Georgian soprano Tamar Iveri the changing moods of the woman determined to kill Tito if she could not marry him were handled with enviable ease.

Servilia and Annio, the innocent young lovers who barely manage to stay out of the way of the machinations of others, were lovingly sung by Heidi Grant Murphy and Anke Vondung. Bass Oren Gradus brought dignity to Tito‘s advisor Publio.

Responsible for much of the success of the revival was the conducing of England’s Harry Bicket, a young man seen with increasing frequency in opera houses and with orchestras on this side of the Atlantic. Bicket, a leading authority on early opera, seemed to relish Mozart’s extensive use of the clarinet in the score. (The instrument was still largely alien to classical orchestras in this year of Mozart’s death.)

CLEMENZA_Graham_Vondung_119.pngSusan Graham (Sesto) and Anke Vondung (Annio)
As stage director of the revival Laurie Feldman was marvelously loyal to Ponnelle’s intentions.

The overall excellence of the Met performance sharply contradicts the opinion of Leopold’s Spanish-born throne-mate who at the premiere found Clemenza “German hogwash.” But above all it was Ponnelle’s wisdom in taking the opera at face value rather than trying to make of Clemenza something that it is not who deserves the highest praise of the success of the staging.

Wes Blomster

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):