La Clemenza di Tito at English Touring Opera

Mozart, La Clemenza di Tito: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of English Touring Opera/Richard Lewis (conductor), Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham, 6.4.2011. (RJ)

Titus  – Mark Wilde
Vitellia –  Gillian Ramm
Servilia  – Rhona McKail
Sextus  – Julia Riley
Annius –  Charlotte Stephenson
Publius – Philip Spendley

Conductor Richard Lewis
Director James Conway

For over thirty years English Touring Opera and its predecessor Opera 80 has been taking its opera productions all over Britain, mostly to theatres too small to accommodate the larger companies. But one should not assume for this reason that ETO is second best – far from it. Its current tour features a clutch of operas which make the current offerings of the big boys look rather commonplace: The Fantastic Mr Fox, based on a children’s tale by Roald Dahl, is being staged on this side of the Atlantic for the first time; the other items on the menu are a Puccini double bill (to be reviewed on this website) and Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito.

Although La Clemenza was the first Mozart opera to be staged in London (in 1806), performances of it are rare these days, whereas The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni are is every company’s repertoire. One problem may be that is an opera seria – a genre which was regarded as outdated by Mozart’s time. Yet Mozart had long nurtured ambitions to compose a “real opera”, as he termed it, and though its action may seem static when compared withThe Magic Flute, it is more dramatic than Pietro Metastasio’s original libretto thanks to Caterino Mazzolà’s clever adaptation.

The opera was written in haste for the coronation of the Hapsburg Emperor Leopold II as King of Bohemia, with Mozart concentrating on the arias and his assistant Süssmayr on the recitatives. The story would have appealed to Mozart, child of the Enlightenment as he was, since it centres on a benevolent ruler. Roman emperors were not exactly renowned for their benevolence – Titus was exceptional in this respect, and I note in passing that he only lasted for two years on the imperial throne.

So much for the background; what of the production? Anyone expecting men in togas and warriors in tunics will be disappointed by James Conway’s version. The action is set in 1930s Europe – where benevolent dictators were few and far between and double-breasted suits and trilby hats were the height of fashion for men. Further suspension of disbelief is required by the presence of two women singers in trouser roles – though this was actually specified by Mozart. In the first half the gloomy set is dominated by a huge mask of Titus hung at different angles, which is smashed to smithereens by the start of the second half.

But once you have made the necessary adjustments the production works well. First on the scene is Gillian Ramm in a slinky 1930s ballroom gown in the role of Vitellia, the daughter of the deposed despot Vitellius. From her body language and general demeanour it is apparent she is a nasty piece of work: she is hungry for power and determined to marry Titus in order to regain it. Her plans look thwarted when she hears the Emperor plans to marry his Jewish mistress Berenice, so she enlists the aid of Sextus, his comrade-at-arms, to remedy the situation.

Enter Julia Riley in the first of the trouser roles. Any doubts I had about women playing male roles were quickly overcome by her convincing portrayal of the loyal, passionate, extrovert, impetuous and naïve Sextus – whose private life one senses is a disaster in the making. A brylcreemed Charlotte Stephenson in the role of Sextus’ confidant Annius also turns in a credible performance despite her slight build. She experiences moments of anxiety when Titus announces that he plans to marry a local girl instead of a foreigner in order to placate his people, the local girl being Sextus’ sister Servilia and Annius’ betrothed. However Rhona McKail as the no nonsense Servilia is bold enough to have it out with the Emperor, who is so moved by her honesty that he blesses her marriage.

Mark Wilde as Titus does not impress one as a powerful ruler on first sight; indeed he looks like an old-fashioned bank manager in his spectacles and double-breasted suit. It is only when he appears in dress uniform for the final scene that one gets any indication of his imperial might. He sees himself as a leader anxious to “do the right thing”, to go down in history as a just and merciful ruler who has the people’s interests at heart – no mean ambition when he is surrounded by countless plots. His advisor Publius, sung by Philip Spendley (who was once a real life bank manager!) cuts a more sinister figure and one suspects he is chief of the secret police in his spare time.

There is a good deal of soul-searching in La Clemenza. Sextus is torn between loyalty to Titus and his blind love for Vitellia. Love finally gets the upper hand, so he dons a double breasted suit and a trilby and goes off to assassinate Titus and set fire to the Capitol. Later it transpires he has bumped off the wrong person! He is arrested and there is more agonising – by Titus who is reluctant to condemn his former friend to death, and by Sextus who nobly refuses to name Vitellia as the instigator of the failed assassination attempt. (Although a chump, he is also a man of honour!) I shall not reveal the final outcome of the opera, but must single out the encounter between Titus and Sextus as one of the most moving moments I have encountered in opera. The wonderful singing by tenor Mark Wilde and mezzo Julia Riley as they reveal their anguish really tugged at the heart strings.

It is a pity Mozart did not write more choruses for La Clemenza, for the ETO dressed in their oh-so-dated thirties costumes were in fine fettle on the night I attended – as was the orchestra, all under the very capable direction of Richard Lewis. The singing (in English) was of a uniformly high standard, though there were times when one or two of the female singers would have benefited from surtitles. This comment does not apply to the magnificent Julia Riley, however, whose performance throughout was a veritable tour de force.

ETO will be visiting Sheffield, Aldeburgh, Norwich, Wolverhampton, Buxton, Truro, Poole, Durham, Perth and Belfast over the next eight weeks.

Roger Jones