Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Mozart - La Clemenza di Tito

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - La Clemenza di Tito

La Monnaie - De Munt, Brussels, 2013

Ludovic Morlot, Ivo van Hove, Kurt Streit, Véronique Gens, Simona Šaturová, Anna Bonitatibus, Anna Grevelius, Alex Esposito

La Monnaie Internet Streaming, November 2013

Mozart's final opera, written only months before his death, represents what seems like a backward step for the composer back to the old opera seria form, but the mature Mozart's approach is considerably different from earlier works written in this style. Ludovic Morlot's Baroque approach to the orchestration in this production of La Clemenza di Tito for La Monnaie in Brussels would also seem to lack the warmth and character that should perhaps be found in the work, while Ivo van Hove's modern staging would seem to be working against both the subject and the musical interpretation. Ultimately however, by giving due emphasis to the motivations and expression of the actual characters, all the necessary elements work remarkably well together to highlight the qualities that are rarely recognised in La Clemenza di Tito or presented as well as they are here.

Based on an old libretto by Metastasio which had previously been set to works by Caldara, Gluck, and Myslivicek - principally on account of Mozart accepting the commission to mark the coronation of Leopold II at short notice - the opera seria structure of the opera can be rather restrictive. Like all Metastasio's libretti however, the situations are rich enough to provide opportunity for the skilled composer to expand upon. The opening encounters between Vitellia and Sesto in Act I for example could be played as tedious scene-setting exposition for the melodramatic incidents that follow, so it is vital that they appear fully formed characters with strong, credible motivations. In the hands of Mozart - particularly at this stage in his career - that's exactly what you get, and it's really what sets La Clemenza di Tito apart from other settings and indeed, from many other examples of opera seria.

La Monnaie's production is superbly directed by Ivo van Hove in this respect, but it's also impressively realised by Véronique Gens as Vitellia and Anna Bonitatibus as Sesto. It's been noted that a successfully interpreted Sesto is half the battle with La Clemenza di Tito, but if that is so then Véronique Gens makes a good case that a credible and well-sung Vitellia for Sesto to work off is just as vital a component. The setting would appear to be given the same consideration since the whole work takes place here in what looks like a Presidential suite with a bed, a lamp and a desk, but it does nonetheless create a strong environment for the bedroom intrigue and the naked ambitions that are laid bare in the opening scenes. You can feel the simmering resentment on both sides, Vitellia over Tito's apparent choice of Berenice as his consort, Sesto over Vitellia's ambitions and how she is using him, but yet he still loves her.

This is the vital root of the conflict that drives the work, and it needs to be made real. It also needs to be built upon when Tito abandons Berenice and decides to marry Servilia instead. Mozart makes you feel Annio's despair at this decision, but any Baroque composer worth his salt can spin off an aria of torment and betrayal at the unjust whims of fate, the Gods and rulers insensitive to the feelings of their subjects. More than that, Mozart allows you through his music to understand why Annio accepts this unjust situation and bows to the will of his Emperor and it's vital to understanding the other vital component that contributes to a successful interpretation of this opera and what it is all about - the clemency of Tito.

The reason why Annio accepts Tito's choice of bride without complaint is covered in the libretto. He is unused to an Emperor who is open and just wants to hear plain speaking and the truth. Again, the conflict between duty and one's personal feelings is standard fare for the baroque composer, but in the hands of Mozart it's much more than this. With Mozart it's an expression of characters who are more fully rounded people with different aspects to their personality, where their true feelings aren't always visible. In line with Mozart's egalitarian views and humanistic beliefs, and reflecting the changing times, there's a real trust and belief in La Clemenza di Tito that people are essentially good. They make mistakes, they sometimes misunderstand intentions and inevitably conflict with the sensibilities of other people, but essentially, they want to do the right thing.

So while people do terrible things, Sesto setting fire to the Capitol and attempting to kill the Emperor, you should nonetheless be able to understand both where those motivations come from.  You should, in the above case, also get a real sense of the horror and the self-disgust that such actions engender in Sesto ('Oh Dei, che smania è questa') and the others ('Oh nero tradimento') at the injury that that been unjustly inflicted upon the person of such a good ruler. That's what La Clemenza di Tito is all about and Mozart's generosity of spirit and his belief in the nobility and the better nature of man warmly suffuses even the rather sterile nature of the opera seria.

I'm not convinced that Ludovic Morlot's conducting and arrangement of the score for the La Monnaie orchestra really gets across the sensitivity of Mozart's writing. It does seem fairly mechanical and reflective more of the Baroque opera seria than Mozart's rather warmer interpretation of it. On the other hand, the quality of the writing itself still comes through here. The contrast of the modern setting however probably works well to counteract any impression of a creaky old-fashioned plot played out on period instruments. The bedroom setting of Act I, with all its implications of bedroom power games, gives way to a crime scene, with forensic investigators in white protective suits trying to get solve the puzzle. Video cameras feature heavily throughout, projecting close-ups on a screen behind to capture the idea that these are important figures, but also revealing the telling details that make them human in this drama.

The magnificent singing and acting performances contribute to this and bear up well to the closer scrutiny. It's here that one gets much more effectively get to the heart of who the characters are and what the work is about. Kurt Streit has precisely the right kind of sweet tenor voice that convinces you that this is a ruler that it is easy to love and hard to refuse. His 'Ah, se fosse intorno al trono' is at least warmly accompanied by the orchestra to fully get his nature across. Véronique Gens is of course one of the finest singers in this repertoire with a beautiful voice that has real power, but it's how she controls it that makes all the difference to her artistry. Anna Bonitatibus is as credible in her acting performance as she is expressive in her singing the vital role of Sesto, giving real heart to the work and its expressions. Annio's role is also critical to the work as a whole and Anna Grevelius makes a real impression. La Monnaie don't stint on any aspect of this production however and there are also good contributions from Simona Šaturová as Servilia and Alex Esposito as Publio.

La Monnaie/De Munt's production of La Clemenza di Tito was broadcast on the internet via their web streaming service.  Subtitles are in French and Dutch only.  The next broadcast of the 2013-14 season, Ambroise Thomas' Hamlet will be available to view for free from 31 December 2013.