Saturday, 22 February 2014

Mozart - La Clemenza di Tito

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - La Clemenza di Tito

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, 2014

Kirill Petrenko, Jan Bosse, Toby Spence, Kristine Opolais, Tara Erraught, Hanna-Elisabeth Müller, Angela Brower, Tareq Nazmi Live Internet Streaming, 16 February 2014

The intentions of Jan Bosse's production of La Clemeneza di Tito for the Bavarian State Opera can be - like most Munich productions - difficult to decipher. Fortunately - and thankfully mostly down to some pruning of Metastasio's libretto for Mozart's version - the purpose and moral of La Clemenza di Tito is not at all difficult to fathom. In terms of the complex nature of the relationships between the characters, yes, there are the usual Metastasian coincidences and cruel twists of fate, but essentially the underlying sentiment is as clear as the title of the opera itself. It's all about the virtue of mercy, clemency, understanding and love for one's fellow man.

If a production can get that essential point across, even if the manner of presenting it isn't the most expressive, then that's really what counts. And in this particular work, perhaps more so than elsewhere, that relies very much on how well attuned the production is to Mozart's music. That's because while Metastasio's libretto for La Clemenza di Tito is very much a classical text - the libretto having already been set to music by some of the most notable composer's of 18th century Baroque opera seria - it's very much transformed and enhanced in this particular instance by the hand of Mozart.

The circumstances of the writing of La Clemenza di Tito are well-documented. The composer's final opera was composed as a commission for the coronation of Leopold II in Prague in 1791. Written in haste and completed in only 18 days to a pre-existing libretto (adapted and reduced to two acts by the poet Caterino Mazzola), the composer assisted by his pupil Süssmayr (who actually only worked on recitatives, and even then those were corrected by Mozart), the composition of La Clemenza di Tito bears all the hallmarks of a rush-job done on autopilot. Even if that were true, Mozart on autopilot is no minor matter, but there is considerably more of the composer's beautiful soul and sensibility in the work that might be apparent within the restrictions of the opera seria form.

It's this quality that Mozart himself brings to the work that it is important to keep in mind when considering La Clemenza di Tito and perhaps that is the intention of the director here. Even though the stage set is a curved forum in the style of the Capitol in Rome at the time of Titus Vespasianus, the costumes are closer to the late 18th century period of Mozart's time. It's worth noting that some figures in period costume with powdered wigs, also take up place at the side of the stage to emphasise this and that the orchestra itself takes their place in the pit as if it's a lower level of the stage. There's not much made of this afterwards, but some elements are brought out further on one or two occasions to add to the effect and remind you that it is by Mozart, that it's an entertainment and that it was meant for a specific audience.

One example is during Sesto's Act I 'Parto, ma tu ben mio' aria. The most conflicted character in the opera, it's Sesto (urged on admittedly by the rather less conflicted Vitellia) who is unable to recognise the more open, kinder nature that sets Titus apart from how rulers are expected to behave. The importance of this character, and the need to show the complexity of his nature and how it is affected by the conflict in his position, is vital to the work. Just so that you don't miss how Mozart scores this aria with some beautiful obbligato clarinet, the musician is brought up onto the stage also. It tells us that we should have some sympathy for Sesto's predicament to the work Mozart. Attention is drawn to the music in this way on several other occasions, in Vitellia's important 'Non piu di fiori' aria not significantly here with a softer fortepiano accompaniment for the recitatives of Titus rather than the usual harpsichord continuo.

Other than that however, there's not much else that is notable about the stage direction or Stéphane Laimé's set design, or much variation between the two acts other than, evidently, the second part taking place in what are now the burnt ruins of the forum. There's one other nice touch at the start of Act II when the action starts without the orchestra being in the pit. Annio actually has to walk down into the pit and play the harpsichord himself to the recitativo secco. It seems to emphasise that the characters can't live, can't exist, and can't really be fully brought to life without Mozart's music there to draw it out.

The singing is evidently just as important when it comes to expression of the sentiments and the themes in the work. Kristine Opolais was the only performer that seemed less comfortable with the particular demands of the Mozartian soprano tessitura. She's a fine soprano and sings well, but is clearly uncomfortable with the high coloratura and the challenge of the sudden drops to the lower end that characterise Vitellia. Toby Spence however proves to have the ideal kind of voice for lovely soft, lyrical tenor that we expect for Titus, and he has all the necessary warmth as well. Sesto, of course is a key role and Tara Erraught performed well. Sesto's arias in particular were handled with great sensitivity for the conflicting sentiments and an awareness of his underlying nature. I was impressed by Angela Brower's Annio - and not just for playing her own accompaniment - but Hanna-Elisabeth Müller's Servilia and Tareq Nazmi's Publio were also of note.

For all the good points about the singing and for the attention given to emphasising the importance of Mozart's score, the production nonetheless never really managed to match the nobility of spirit or find the necessary warmth that characterises the best performances of this work. The fault would seem to lie with the actual stage direction, which was mostly static, with lots of standing around and little on-stage activity (other than a few close-up video projections and the huge conflagration at the end of Act I) to break it up. Kirill Petrenko's conducting and the delicate playing of the Bayerisches Staatsorchester captured the delicate transparency of Mozart's scoring, but it failed to connect with the narrative drive of the dramatic action in the way that it should.