Thursday, February 11, 2021

LA CLEMENZA DI TITO (Wiener Staatsoper)*****


By Dave


Available until: I’m not sure but Don Giovanni is still available more than 24 hours after broadcast and Figaro is no longer available 3 days after broadcast. So I’d guess at all of them being around for 48 hours but that is a guess. There is another broadcast on 16th February from 6pm.

La clemenza di Tito is generally included in the list of Mozart’s best-known operas but although it’s performed more often than works like La finta giardiniera, Mitridate, re di Ponto and Il re pastore, it’s definitely not up there with the Da Ponte operas and Die Zauberflote and it’s probably performed a bit less often than Idomeneo and Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail (though this is open to debate, I haven’t sat down and done a survey).

I’m sure it’s nothing to do with the music. This opera has some brilliant arias and ensembles and a dramatic, exciting plot. I think maybe at least part of the problem is the characters. We need someone to root for and there isn’t really anyone who stands out. The opera is about whether Tito is going to put friendship or law enforcement first and there’s not much else to him in terms of plot and character development. But the central couple, Vitellia and Sesto, aren’t necessarily people you’d want to root for either. Vitellia is the kind of person who’d ask her boyfriend to murder a guy who didn’t marry her. Sesto is the kind of person who’d say “Yep, okay. Whatever you say, Vitellia.” This is not just morally wrong, it’s actually in his best interests for his girlfriend not to marry someone else.

There is a very likeable couple in Annio and Servilia who show themselves to be honest and loyal but their problems are resolved very early on and apart from getting mixed up in Vitellia and Sesto’s dramas, there’s not really anything else for them to do. So we’re back to Tito, Vitellia and Sesto, and in order to make that work, we need a cast that not only sing the roles very well (Vitellia is especially difficult as her range goes from contralto to soprano) but acts the role well enough for us to care about Tito, Vitellia and Sesto despite what they do (or don’t do).

Wiener Staatsoper really have done an incredible job here. Director Jurgen Flimm has introduced a few different ideas that really increase the emotional level of the production. Tito is not just a ruler here but a man with emotions who really does very clearly hate the difficult positions he’s found himself in and is gutted to learn of the behaviour of people he thought were his friends. The opera opens with the news that Tito has decided not to marry Berenice of Cilicia for political reasons and he sends her home. However, in this production, Berenice remains with Tito, showing no jealousy of the two women Tito chooses over her and supporting him unconditionally. Rather than being a remote leader, Tito becomes a very human man with a lot to deal with and he and Berenice become the couple we root for.

Though that’s not to say we dislike Vitellia and Sesto. They make some terrible mistakes but it’s actually much easier to accept them and hope for their redemption when they’re not being pushed at us as THE couple.

The decision to update the story to the present day wasn’t illuminating but it worked so that’s good enough for me – and Birgit Hutter came up with some great modern costumes. The staging of the disaster at the end of Act 1 is very powerful and the ending to Act 2, for different reasons, is incredibly tense. George Tsypin’s sets are plain and grey but not ugly and they reflect the seriousness of the situation. The decision to have a bed onstage in scenes where you wouldn’t expect to find a bed could have been odd but was actually symbolic. A lot of the problems in Tito (though not necessarily any more than most stories) occur because of decisions people have made about who they want to share their bed with.

Benjamin Bruns sings Tito’s arias gorgeously and does a great job of showing us all the anguish and turmoil Tito goes through and really making us sympathise. Being an Emperor really isn’t enough to guarantee happiness. He also has a lovely onstage relationship with Mosqueta Bonilla Maria del Pilar, who acts brilliantly in the silent role of Berenice.

Caroline Wenborne is a glamorous and dramatic Vitellia who negotiates the challenging music well and does win sympathy for her character as she realises the implications of what she’s done. Margarita Gritskova’s vocally-dextrous but smitten Sesto gradually learns courage and responsibility. Miriam Albano is a warm-voiced and well-intentioned Annio while Hila Fahima thoroughly deserved her applause for Servilia’s sole aria. Her voice is clear and ringing and it’s no surprise at all to see how her career has progressed since she performed in this production (it’s from 2016). Manuel Walser makes Publio into a more interesting character than usual and his singing and interpretation of his arias are great.


Another triumph for Wiener Staatsoper, with Die Zauberflote and Die Entfuhrung still to come.

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