Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - La Clemenza di Tito
Théâtre des Champs Elysées, Paris, 2014
Jérémie Rhorer, Denis Podalydès, Kurt Steit, Karina Gauvin, Julie Fuchs, Kate Lindsey, Julie Boulianne, Robert Gleadow
ARTE Concert - 18 December 2014
There are a few unusual features introduced by actor and director Denis Podalydès into this production of La Clemenza di Tito at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées in Paris. One is that you actually get to see and hear Berenice, the Queen rejected by Titus at the start of the opera. The second feature used by Podalydès is the setting of the work in France in the late 1930s-1940s during the time of the Occupation. It would seem doubtful that either of these elements have anything to add to Mozart's final opera or even whether Mozart's opera can help illuminate a significant period in modern French history, but there is unquestionably a vibrancy and an edge to this production that we rarely see in Mozart's late opera seria.
The inclusion of Berenice, the opening scene featuring an actress performing a scene from Racine's drama, is a bit of an actorly theatrical indulgence, but it's not entirely without merit. Berenice has an important part to play in what unfolds during the reign of Titus during this period as it is detailed in Metastasio's libretto, so it does serve some purpose to put a face to the name. The setting during the Occupation is never made explicit, but the period costumes and setting in the presidential suites of a large hotel do suggest that the rule of Titus is being compared to the running of the Vichy government during the war, otherwise why set it there at all?
I'm not sure that's a valid or helpful analogy to establish the nature of Titus' predicaments in La Clemenza di Tito - though it does provide some amusing ideas imagining Sextus as a Resistance fighter operating from within the regime. What it undoubtedly brings to the work however is a very distinct character, style and setting that has some concrete reality, and not the generic antiquity designs or the abstract symbols of power that usually characterise productions of this work. It looks stunning, but more than that, it enlivens and gives character to a difficult opera seria work where most of the action takes place off-stage, with the protagonists usually agonising over developments in long da capo arias.
In this Théâtre des Champs Elysées production, Podalydès rarely lets a character stand alone on the stage and sing these arias out to the audience. He fills the rooms of this elegant, wood-panelled apartment suite with government officials and administrators. All of them are smartly dressed in 1940s' suits designed by Christian Lacroix (the female characters perhaps not quite so elegantly fitted). There's always the bustle of people coming and going, giving a sense of real political activity going on, of events spiralling out of control behind the scenes. More than the inclusion of Berenice or the Occupation setting, what Podalydès really brings to La Clemenza di Tito is a sense of drama.
For a usually static opera seria, that's a useful attribute to have, and in the end it's the conviction of the acting and singing performances that really carry the inner drive of the work. The opening monologue prepares you for a completely theatrical experience (or, as it is filmed for the live broadcast - in widescreen - a near-cinematic experience) that simmers with tension and aching passions. La Clemenza di Tito rarely feels as dramatic as this, but it's through no fault of the work itself. It's all there in the music if the director is willing and imaginative enough to interpret it, and Podalydès does it very well indeed in collaboration with Jérémie Rhorer.
That suits Kurt Streit, who in a radio interview for the France Musique radio broadcast of this production, refers to himself as an actor first and a singer after that. In a production like this he is in his element, but he also has the right kind of voice for Titus. He's not as strong this time, but that light lyrical timbre is gorgeous. The right voices are also there in Julie Fuchs' sweet, delicate Servilia, Julie Boulianne's firm of purpose Annius and Robert Gleadow's grave Publius. Mostly however, it's Karina Gauvin who takes the acting credits as Vitellia, and she's powerful in the singing stakes as well. There's no caricature or stock opera seria characterisation here, Gauvin's Vitellia coming across genuinely like a woman scorned and vengeful, completely dominating the stage whenever she's on it.
Equally impressive is Kate Lindsey's Sextus, making this one formidable power couple! It's a committed and a nuanced performance, carrying real emotion and feeling. Combining impeccable technique and a flowing legato with real character insight, Lindsey transforms 'Deh per questo istante solo' into something truly remarkable, running through all the conflict of Sesto's position, and an almost ecstatic acceptance or controlled abandonment to the unenviable hand that fate has dealt him, a traitor at the mercy of a powerful ruler.
This ruler, Titus however is not like other rulers, he has 'un altro cor'. This production also has another heart, and it's that of Mozart, the qualities of each of the characters embodied in the music he has written for them. The musical performance of the work is not as showy as it can be, Jérémie Rhorer's conducting of the reduced period instrumentation of Le Cercle de l’Harmonie ensemble, restrained, simple and elegant, but it suits the nature of the opera seria, it supports the dramatic situation and it allows the singers the freedom to express the nature of the characters themselves. Whether the curiosities of the staging helped this or not, Denis Podalydès' production for the Théâtre des Champs Elysées in Paris got to the the heart of La Clemenza di Tito.
Links: ARTE Concert, Théâtre des Champs Elysées