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Reviews

<em>La clemenza di Tito</em>, Glyndebourne Festival Opera
28 Jul 2017

A new La clemenza di Tito at Glyndebourne

Big birds are looming large at Glyndebourne this year. After Juno’s Peacock, which scooped up the suicidal Hipermestra, Chris Guth’s La clemenza di Tito offers us a huge soaring magpie, symbolic of Tito’s release from the chains of responsibility in Imperial Rome.

La clemenza di Tito, Glyndebourne Festival Opera

A review by Claire Seymour

Tito (Richard Croft) and the Glyndebourne Chorus

Photo credit: Monika Rittershaus

 

Guth’s and designer Christian Schmidt’s concept is more sentimental than Imperial, but not without relevance and effect. During the overture - brisk and airy under Robert Ticciati’s guidance - we enter a world of whimsy, as a digital projection unfolds the adventures of two young boys playing amid the woods and beside the lake in a rural idyll with more than a hint of resemblance to Glyndebourne’s own grounds. The faux chivalry of sword-fights with sticks takes a more sinister turn when the boys stalk wildlife, one with catapult a-ready. A shot is slung, and a bloodied magpie is the result - a betrayal of trust and of nature.

Unfortunately, first-night flickers and blackouts made the visuals even more distracting from the musical prelude than might have been the case; and, it’s not immediately clear that these two lads are the adolescent Tito and Sesto, whose friendship will be so tensely tested in the ensuing operatic narrative. This is not just a matter of realism - Richard Croft’s Tito looking at least one generation ahead of Anna Stéphany’s Sesto - but also because there is no clear link between the on-screen Elysian fields and the post-eruption ashes of the land of Vesuvian shadows which form half of the set. It is only in Act 2, when the conflicted Tito must decide the traitorous Sesto’s fate, that the parallels crystallise: the two young boys escape from the digital celluloid and clamber through the rough reed beds, ghostly representatives of disloyalty and division, who haunt their subsequent selves with disturbing memories.

clemenza_243.jpgPhoto credit: Monika Rittershaus.

There is nothing Imperial about Schmidt’s split set: ravaged undergrowth - presumably the foothills of the recently erupted Vesuvius, as lava rocks and odds bits of furniture lay strewn - is juxtaposed with a grim, grey modern corporate milieu which lies hidden above until the black projection screen is lifted. There’s a lot of up and down, and upstairs/downstairs, but Olaf Winter’s gloomy lighting is atmospheric and apposite, emphasising the dullness and inertia of Tito’s political relationships and his own disaffection with a power dependent on fear.

Guth’s Personenregie is not always credible. Vitellia cries ‘Come here and embrace me,’ as she wanders off in the opposite direction from the infatuated Sesto; ‘Come near me!’ Tito demands, as he and Sesto walk backwards towards each other (tentatively, across an obstacle-strewn set - which ironically almost wrong-footed some the production team during the curtain calls), bump into each other and then lurch apart. When Sesto refuses to divulge the reasons for his treason, Tito threatens his beloved friend with a sickle, then uses it to scythe clumps of reeds which he clutches to his chest. There is much synchronised choral semaphoring from the ‘men in grey suits’ (both the gents and ladies of the Glyndebourne Chorus being thus attired).

Coote, Stephany and Bailey.jpg Vitellia (Alice Coote), Sesto (Anna Stéphany) and Publio (Clive Bayley). Photo credit: Monika Rittershaus.

Fortunately, there is some excellent singing to distract us from the irritating visuals. The withdrawal of the pregnant Kate Lindsay led Anglo-French mezzo-soprano Anna Stéphany - originally intended for the role of Annio - to step into Sesto’s shoes and her performance was simply stunning. I missed Stéphany’s much-lauded Marschallin at the ROH (where I saw a performance by the first cast), but I did admire her capricious Serse in the Early Opera Company’s performance of Handel’s opera at St John’s Smith Square last November. And, once again it was a true delight to enjoy her exquisitely styled phrasing and expressive coloratura. The challenges of ‘Parto, parto, ma tu, ben mio’ were met with ease, and the coloratura was sweet-toned, as if overflowing with Sesto’s love for both Vitellia and Tito - a love which was reflected in the beautifully played basset clarinet obbligato. ‘Deh, per questo istante solo’, in which Sesto declares himself deserving of death, vowing to take all the guilt upon himself, was equally moving. Impressively, Stéphany made the role dramatically credible too, plausibly treading the fine line between idealistic self-sacrifice and all-consuming passion - a task made more difficult in a production where it was not evident why anyone would fall so unreservedly under the erotic spell of Vitellia.

The vengeful daughter of a deposed emperor who abuses Sesto’s love to gain power and become Empress, Alice Coote’s Vitellia is clear ‘a baddie’ - a gun-toting chain-smoker, she even has a purple coat. Less femme fatale than a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, this vituperative Vitellia seems to slide into hysteria, even psychosis, when she holds a pistol to Sesto’s head to convince him to murder Tito. No one could accuse Coote of lack of commitment and this was a heroic effort, but she was vocally taxed by a role which frequently lies too high for her mezzo. In ‘Deh, se piacer mi vuoi’ she pushed her voice hard, as Vitellia dreams of being Empress, but the result was sometimes squally. In the revelatory ‘Non più di fiore’, however, we finally enjoyed Coote’s lovely full, burnished lower register, as Vitellia is enlightened, recognising the error of her ways. We, too, were ‘enlightened’, as the aria was sung with the house lights on - another technical hitch, or designed to suggest spiritual illumination in contrast to the prevailing moral darkness?

Tito and Serse.jpg Tito (Richard Croft) and Sesto (Anna Stéphany). Photo credit: Monika Rittershaus.

American tenor Richard Croft, following the withdrawal of Steve Davislim, was a benevolent patriarch, singing with soft-grained lyricism and fluency, although he wasn’t entirely comfortable at the top and had a tendency to be ponderous in the recitatives. This Tito was deeply tormented by the dilemmas he faced, as his innate compassion clashed with the magisterial demands of office, but he lacked a certain aristocracy - an imperial nobility which is essential if the qualms caused by his high-mindedness are to ring true. Tito is magnanimous, but he is not meek. Moreover, by placing Tito’s quasi-infatuation with Sesto centre-stage, the production neglected the political context for the drama: it was not clear why Tito must banish Berenice - we see her depart bearing two suitcases - whom he loves but whom his nation will not accept as Empress, nor why having initially chosen Servilia as her replacement, she too is rejected in favour of Vitellia.

Servilia.jpg Servilia (Joélle Harvey). Photo credit: Monika Rittershaus.

Joélle Harvey, who made a strong impression here in La finta giardiniera three year ago, sang with stylishness and delicacy as Servilia, giving depth to the slight role and pleading for Sesto’s life with heart-moving earnestness in her final aria. Annio, the role originally intended for Stéphany, was beautifully sung by Canadian mezzo-soprano Michèle Losier who captured all of Annio’s loyalty and honesty.

The playing of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment was tender and spacious, though the ceremonial numbers might have had a little more regality. Ticciati sensitively gave his singers the time they needed, but there was occasional loss of momentum in the recitatives with too many longueurs and silences. Ashok Gupta (fortepiano) and Luise Buchberger (cello), raised in the pit, were not once unsettled by the hiatuses, however.

Some have seen La clemenza di Tito as a homage to Leopold II, whose coronation as King of Bohemia the opera was commissioned to celebrate; others, as a warning to pre-Revolutionary European rulers of the dangers of the abuse of power. Certainly, contemporary political tensions remind us of the need for leaders who will ensure the safety and security of nations, as emphasised perhaps in the closing moments of this production when Clive Bayley’s dark-voiced Publio - the unsettling, manipulative commander of the Praetorian Guard - came out of the shadows to assume the reins of power.

Another self-conscious directorial gesture, perhaps; but the superb cast ensured that the sincerity which is at the heart of this opera was preserved.

Claire Seymour

Mozart: La clemenza di Tito

Vitellia - Alice Coote, Sesto - Anna Stéphany, Annio - Michèle Losier, Publio - Clive Bayley, Tito - Richard Croft, Servilia - Joélle Harvey, Children - Rupert Wade and Logan Bradley; director - Claus Guth, conductor - Robin Ticciati, designer - Christian Schmidt, lighting designer - Olaf Winter, video designer - Arian Andiel, dramaturg - Ronny Dietrich, movement director - Ramses Sigl, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Glyndebourne Chorus (chorus master, Jeremy Bines).

Glyndebourne Festival Opera; Wednesday 26th July 2017.

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