Sunday 17 December 2017

Mozart - La Clemenza di Tito (Salzburg, 2017)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - La Clemenza di Tito

Salzburg Festspiele, 2017

Teodor Currentzis, Peter Sellars, Russell Thomas, Golda Schultz, Christina Gansch, Marianne Crebassa, Jeanine De Bique, Willard White - 4 August 2017

The stock of Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito has certainly risen over the last few decades. Conductors and directors no longer shy away from its formal opera seria origins or its sympathetic treatment of wise noble rulers, realising that everything that is great about Mozart is as much there in his final opera as it is in his celebrated collaborations with Lorenzo da Ponte. When Mozart's musical language is allowed to exert its own narrative, the work seems to take on an aspect of supreme beauty in relation not so much to the wisdom of an ancient Roman ruler as to the troubles that the human soul has to grapple in recognition of and in overcoming its own flaws and weaknesses.

Directors and conductors have employed a huge variety of ways to bring out this aspect of Mozart's genius in his work, and I've never failed to be impressed with the flexibility with which La Clemenza di Tto is able to transform and adapt, fit around and find humanity in each of its characters, all of whom have their own focus of conflict. Trims have often been made to the recitative and a few arias have been dropped to make up for the six week rush within which Mozart completed the commission, but no-one has felt the need to radically reconfigure and alter the work the way that Teodor Currentzis and Peter Sellars do in their 2017 production for the Salzburg Festival.

Aside from some reconstructions of lost Vivaldi operas, I can't think of another opera production that worked as freely with a composer's material as the Salzburg La Clemenza di Tito, and this is a work that has never been considered incomplete by any means or in need of any reconstructive work. Yet, Sellars and Currentzis eviscerate Clemenza of much of its recitative and choruses in its place add pieces from Mozart's C-Minor Mass, from the Requiem and even the Masonic Funeral Music as an added finale when Titus dies in this production. You would have reason to be worried that the integrity of the piece would be compromised by such unwarranted meddling, but in truth, the intent and the beauty of La Clemenza di Tito remains intact.

The reason for that is obviously that because the heart of Mozart still lies behind all the pieces that have been added and reassembled here. It's still no easy matter to hold that together and retain the purpose and flow of the original work, and with the always controversial figures of both Teodor Currentzis and Peter Sellars involved, there's no guarantee that any such experimentation will work, but in this case it does. The ability of both to put the work in service of meaningful sentiments and situations that we recognise in the world today even allows them to go even further in the musical and stage direction to create something quite remarkable, profound and moving - as remarkable, profound and as moving as Mozart ought to be.

You can pinpoint little moments that work brilliantly; the Benedictus from the C-Minor Mass being the response of the people to Titus diverting the tributes earmarked for a temple in his honour towards the fund to rebuilt homes lost during the last eruption of Vesuvius; the visual placement on the stage of a basset horn accompaniment to Sesto's 'Parto Parto' aria; Annio's heart-rending solo during the Kyrie from Mozart's Requiem following the burning of the Capitol that almost kills Titus; but what matters is that all these moments only serve to bring out the underlying sentiment of love that is twisted by human turmoil and weakness, and how it is translated or redeemed by the human wisdom and forgiveness of Tito. Everything is in service to bringing this out, and it's best brought out in attentiveness to what Mozart's music tells us.

So a lot of responsibility lies with how Teodor Currentzis interprets and arranges Mozart's music, and since this conductor is well-known for his radical reinterpretation and revisions of Mozart's music, that is always going to be both interesting and controversial. The distinctive approach to the balance, arrangement and use of instruments is evident in Currentzis's MusicAeterna ensemble's use of period instruments, including a baroque guitar and an archlute, as well as fortepiano flourishes added during the recitative. It never sounds anything less than completely Mozart, a fresh, contemporary and adventurous response to the deep emotional content within the work, highlighting the strength of the melody and giving it a beautiful open transparency.

The concept and the stage direction are more important here than set designs, the Felsenreitschule auditorium contributing to the atmosphere here, with little else in the way of constructions in George Tsypin set design other than abstract light sculptures. The modern-day costumes and suggested ethnicity of the chorus also has contemporary resonance, as does Sesto's wearing of a suicide vest for his terrorist mission against the state. Flowers, candles and photos are arrayed across the stage at the start of the Second Act in a remembrance display for the victims of this terror attack, which might be a bit of a cliché now, but it does function to highlight the reality of such violence, and the need all the more to respond to it with tolerance, forgiveness and compassion.

The prospect of some heavy-handed messaging is always a risk with Peter Sellars, but here he genuinely taps into something present and real, not an abstract artificial construct of an idea based around terrorism and refugees - and more importantly, it taps into Mozart. Sellars employed a similar theme and technique when directing a merger of Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex with Symphony of Psalms at Aix-en-Provence in 2016 - although keeping them separate, the latter as a 'sequel' to Oedipus Rex - but this is much more ambitious and much more successful in the results it yields.

The direction of the singers and their fully engaged performances also takes La Clemenza di Tito far away from any opera seria mannerisms or formality. As is often the case with this work, the emphasis can shift very much according to the strengths of the singers. Russell Thomas is not the most lyrical or Mozartian Titus, the role often going to softer voices, but you can see him as a figure who commands trust and respect, particularly in his delivery of his concluding arias. Golda Schultz by comparison was a softer, more sympathetic Vitellia, capable of being moved deeply by the horror she sets in motion. The stand-out performances here for me however came from Marianne Crebassa's deeply conflicted Sesto, and from Jeanine De Bique's soaring Annio.

Links: Salzburg Festspiele,