Opera + Classical Music Reviews

La Clemenza di Tito @ Glyndebourne Festival Opera, Lewes

26, 29, 31 July, 3, 6, 8, 11, 13, 16, 19, 21, 24, 26 August 2017

Richard Croft
(Photo: Monika Rittershaus)

“What infinite heart’s ease / Must kings neglect that private men enjoy?” (Henry V) Shakespeare’s comment on the anxiety of kingship seems to best characterize this new production by Claus Guth of Mozart’s late opera, commissioned to celebrate Leopold II’s coronation as King of Bohemia in 1791. Its other major focus is the enduring nature of the ties of friendships formed in youth, and both themes are finely explored in this insightful, intellectually strong reading. It is given the most exalted of musical values under Robin Ticciati.

There is obviously some advantage to having been unable to attend the first night, since the reported glitches of that occasion had been smoothly sorted on Saturday, and we also had the pleasure of experiencing the house debut of the Italian soprano Gioia Crepaldi, singing Vitellia in place of Alice Coote, a first night casualty who had sustained a neck injury. Miss Crepaldi had better polish up her resumé since she is sure to be in demand after this showing – such was her confidence that it was hard to believe that she had not been cast in the role, and her singing, though naturally not her best, was unfailingly musical. The lowest note may not have been quite there, but she was a totally convincing Vitellia whether in rage or regret, and she coped well with one of those ‘oh here we go again’ bits of stage business which equate constant smoking with insecurity.

Anna Stéphany’s Sesto was in the Fassbaender / Baker league, and what a pleasure it is to say that of a young singer at Glyndebourne. Her relationship with Michèle Losier’s equally fine Annio – a Sesto in the making – provided joy in every phrase, and her singing of both ‘Parto, parto’ and ‘Deh, per questo istante solo’ revealed a beautifully burnished tone, nuanced phrasing and deeply moving ardour. The little recitative and duettino ‘Amico, ecco il momento…’ for Annio and Sesto, was a minute or so of sheer musical bliss.

Richard Croft was a fairly late replacement for Steve Davislim, who had left the cast citing ‘artistic differences’ – a comment which made one’s heart sink before seeing the production, and caused some wonderment after. Surely no one could object to Guth’s absolutely committed, utterly sympathetic concept of Tito, especially given the fact that it was an exceptionally credible presentation of a character who can sometimes come across as rather dull? Seneca told Nero that “…nothing is more glorious in a Prince, than to pardon those who have offended him” and naturally such benevolence is difficult to present, but Guth’s obviously very strong concentration on personenregie succeeded in showing us the turmoil, conflicts and true nature of this Emperor. Croft’s tone is thinner than that of his youth, but even though he found ‘Se all’ impero’ challenging he gave a moving interpretation of ‘Del più sublime soglio’ and provided a model of Mozartean sweetness in his recitatives.

Anna Stéphany & Michèle Losier
(Photo: Monika Rittershaus)

Joélle Harvey was a touching Servilia, singing with liquid tone and graceful phrasing, and Clive Bayley presented a superbly acted portrait of that combination of servility and cruelty, Publio. The Glyndebourne chorus gave yet another demonstration of how to be credible populi whilst singing with clarity and style.

Mozart wrote the basset-horn obbligato of ‘Non più di fiori’ and the clarinet solo of ‘Parto, parto’ for his friend Anton Stadler, of whom he said that he never should have thought that a clarinet “could be capable of imitating a human voice so deceptively as it was imitated by you… nobody can resist it who has a heart.’ The wonderful playing of these instruments by Katherine Spencer and Antony Pay of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment would surely have gladdened the composer’s heart, and they were equalled by the sparkling continuo of Ashok Gupta and Luise Buchberger. Robin Ticciati directed playing of delicacy and profound beauty from the orchestra, with tempi on the sprightly side yet never forcing the singers. This was Mozart playing of the very highest order.

Guth’s production sets the political machinations of the Senate in a dark, sparsely modern room, perched above a landscape which evokes the Pontine marshes – if that was the intention of Christian Schmidt’s design, then it was very successful as a contrast to the city’s politics. The use of a video (Arian Andiel) to demonstrate the close boyhood friendship of Tito and Sesto was also appropriate, and it mattered not one jot that their age difference as stage characters seemed greater than that on the screen. Olaf Winter’s beautifully limpid lighting worked to unite both aspects.

In his Life of Mozart, Niemetschek remarks that “Conoisseurs are in doubt whether Tito does not in fact surpass Don Giovanni” – some of us believe that it does, but for those yet to be persuaded this finely sung, gloriously played and intelligently considered production might make you think again. There are seats left for most of the coming performances, but if you can’t make it to Glyndebourne you’ll still be able to experience it since the performance on August 3rd will be broadcast live in cinemas and online.

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