ENO’s revival of La Clemenza di Tito shows Edward Gardner again as a valuable injection of new blood into the company.
He conducts a delicately intense account of Mozart’s late score, making us feel that the future of the company is in safe hands musically.
David McVicar has an unerring sense of what is appropriate and gives us a subtle, moving and visually arresting production.
For his last opera, Mozart returned to the tradition of opera seria that he’d all but abandoned in his youth. Having explored the diabolical aspects of human nature in Don Giovanni four years earlier, he now turned to the story of the good and gentle emperor Titus. Whether the historical character was quite as noble as legend has delivered him, Mozart and his librettists show a man imbued with the qualities of generosity, kindness and forgiveness.
The problem with portraying these characteristics onstage is that they are nowhere as interesting dramatically as the devilish charms of a Don Giovanni, making Tito a much more difficult character to play. Paul Nilon embodies the virtues beautifully; while our engagement may wander a little during his vacillation and uncertainty about the proper path to take, Mozart ends the opera with music that is so uplifting it allows us to buy his noble actions completely. It’s quite an achievement for both composer and singer when the performance is as convincing as Nilon’s.
One of the most anticipated elements of this run was the casting of mezzo Alice Coote in another of her now familiar trouser roles, as the love-lorn Sesto. Maybe because of a chest infection, her first night performance was slow to warm up. This most physical and intense of acting singers seemed distinctly uncomfortable in the early scenes and it wasn’t until “Send me, but my beloved” (Parto, ma tu ben mio), with its lovely clarinet obbligato, that we started to see something of the spark that marks her out as a quite exceptional performer. Her voice never quite rose to the heights of which it’s capable but Act Two’s “Will you grant me one last moment” (Deh, per questo istante solo) saw her approaching her best form.
Emma Bell as Vitellia was also a little ragged to begin with but her “Garlands of flowers, withered and perished” (Non pi di fiori) in Act Two was quite outstanding, earning her a well-deserved ovation. In a work which moves rapidly from the dark machinations of political manoeuvring to the light of just and noble governance, Vitellia makes the biggest journey of all. Beginning as a spoilt princess with a serious attitude problem, she is humbled by the dignity and fairness of others and finally learns a better way of living.
The stick-swirling servants are the only jarring aspect of McVicar’s production; faintly camp and just a bit too stylised, they raise some unintentional sniggers. Andrew Foster-Williams as the officious public servant Publio, bent on doing the right thing politically, registers strongly as leader of these dark forces.
McVicar’s final image, a hint that ultimately goodness won’t survive the rough and tumble of Roman politics, profoundly disturbs after the celebration of the finer qualities of which, just occasionally, mankind is capable.
This revival (directed by Stphane Marlot) is not quite as sharp as the original performances a couple of years ago but the current short run is an opportunity not to be missed if you want to see a dignified and often beautiful realisation of this underperformed work. It’s not Mozart at his very best but it’s a refreshing alternative to the more famous operas that get trotted out a little too often.