Imaginative New La Clemenza from Opera North

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, La Clemenza di Tito: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Opera North, Douglas Boyd, (Conductor) Grand Theatre, Leeds, 31.1.2013 (JL)


Tito: Paul Nilon
Vitellia: Annemarie Kremer
Servilia: Fflur Wyn
Sesto: Helen Lepalaan
Annio: Kathryn Rudge
Publio: Henry Waddington


Conductor: Douglas Boyd
Director: John Fulljames
Set and Costume Designer: Conor Murphy
Lighting Designer: Bruno Poet
Projection Designer: Finn Ross
Movement Director: Tim Claydon

By 1791 Mozart had completed his last three buffa operas, elevating the form to sublime heights, defining and establishing “what we mean by drama in music and who, in Figaro first created complete, living operatic characters” (David Cairns). Returning, in La Clemenza, to the much more prestigious, but well worn, formulaic opera seria has, for most of the time ever since, conventionally been thought of as a mistake. But the offer to write an opera to celebrate the coronation of the new Hapsburg emperor, Leopold II, as King of Bohemia in Prague would have been a commission hard to turn down. If successful it was likely to do wonders for his CV. The composer was forced to write at breakneck speed, farming out the setting of most of the recitatives to someone else (probably his pupil Süssmayer). The libretto was based on one written nearly forty years earlier to celebrate a birthday of Leopold’s grandfather, Emperor Charles VI. It was written by the man who came to dominate C18th seria libretti, Italian poet Pietro Metastasio. Mozart had to return to a form that was designed to extol the virtues of a benevolent monarch and conform to conventions such as casting lead male roles for castrati and emphasing the contrast between lavish state pomp and the private lives of stereotypical characters that he would be hard pressed to invest with the humanity he had achieved in opera buffa.

From a human, narrative standpoint, La Clemenza is a story of people behaving badly – murderously so – who, rather unconvincingly, receive total absolution by the end. This is what happens in Metastasian opera seria and is what usually makes them so political. Vast sums were spent by European heads of state launching operas that always ended with a benevolent ruler (a reflection of themselves) dishing out huge helpings of magnanimity. They were nearly all at it, from heavyweight big spenders Frederick the Great and Catherine the Great to the Duke of Württemburg, who, in trying to keep up, bankrupted his Principality.

At La Clemenza’s premiere on the evening of coronation day, the audience would have been acutely aware of the political message. Leopold was Tito, the enlightened ruler who had nothing but the interests of his people at heart. But the occasion was especially highly charged through the breaking out of the French revolution two years earlier, an event that would seem to threaten the whole concept of royal dictatorship – benevolent or otherwise – across Europe. Thus, the poet commissioned to adapt Metastasio’s libretto, Caterino Mazzolà, ratcheted up the background plot involving an attempted palace coup to show that revolution does not pay.

Opera North’s intriguingly staged , well sung production seeks to solve some of the problems posed by the opera and its politics.

The curtain is raised at the start of the overture, revealing what looks like a board meeting in an immaculately decorated contemporary office setting. This looked as if it might be a promising attempt to relocate the remote political intrigues of Emperor Tito’s ancient Rome to a modern board room power struggle scenario. But the metaphor proves not to have legs and rather peters out during the course of the evening, by which time it doesn’t matter for we have been drawn into the private, personal machinations of the drama. This focus is evident early on at Tito’s entrance, a public procession in which the “just and strong” ruler appears surrounded by the trappings of state power to receive a eulogising from the assembled throng. At least that is what is supposed to happen according to the libretto. Opera North stands the scene on its head. As the grand entrance march is heard, the centre stage containing a large glass screen revolves to reveal Tito entirely alone. The chorus is unseen off-stage and remains so throughout the production. Thus Tito is presented as a man isolated by his power, someone who wants to believe in the goodness of those around him but is not sure who he can trust, longing for people to tell him how it is, not what they think he wants to hear.

Tenor Paul Nilon pulls off this characterisation with conviction, eschewing the conceit of power and playing a lonely man with a tortured soul. He sings increasingly well through the evening and clears the hurdle of Tito’s final virtuoso aria with aplomb.

All other roles are sung with distinction. The castrato role of Sesto is sung by a mellifluously sounding Helen Lepalaan whose voice contrasts nicely with the more edgy tone of Annemarie Kremer’s bitch from hell, Vitellia. Sesto is basically a decent man hopelessly caught in the spider web that Vitellai has woven around him. She has every trick in a locker that contains a particularly strong line in emotional and sexual blackmail.

Dutch soprano Annemarie Kremer became an Opera North heroine a year ago when helping to rescue a production of Norma after the singer cast in one the most demanding of lead roles dropped out. That was her first appearance in Leeds. Let’s hope we see more of her from now on. As Vitellia she charts the course of a character who maliciously sets in motion a train of destructive events but ends in pleading pity for her guilt. This is done in the longest aria of the opera and was the dramatic highlight of the evening – a powerful display of one-woman operatic theatricality. In a production that has most men and women dressed in varying styles of black suit, she enters in a lavish, redemptively white wedding dress contrasting with flame-red hair that has been one of the main splashes of colour in a monochrome setting. Instead of pleading pity from others she conveys self loathing that manifests itself in bloody self harm, carving her face with a shard of glass.

In other roles, two young singers distinguished themselves: Kathryn Rudge in the castrato part of Anio sang faultlessly and Fflur Wyn as Servilia, the girl who unwillingly receives an offer of marriage from Tito, brilliantly conveyed a gauche, youthful innocence. Henry Waddington, with his fruity baritone and large frame, made for a suitably commanding chief of the Praetorian Guard.

Mozart did write in another role – one for the clarinet player. This was a gift to his friend Anton Stadler who was in the pit and for whom he wrote the famous concerto and quintet. Two arias might as well be thought of as operatic concertos for voice and instrument. Mozart was particularly drawn to the sound of the lower register of the slightly lower pitched basset horn and basset-clarinet. Colin Honour of the Orchestra of Opera North showed us why as he hit the bottom of cascades of delicious, smoothly rippling runs. During ovations at the end of the performance, conductor Douglas Boyd brought him on stage for suitable acknowledgement.

The bold, imaginative sets and costumes of Conor Murphy were probably not to everyone’s taste. The staging was within a large receding box shape, centre stage dominated by the glass screen which turned out to be a form of two way mirror. Private scenes acted in front of the screen were often voyeuristically observed from behind by other characters. The screen revolved at scene changes accompanied by some very clever back projection. All was aesthetically pleasing and in my case, delighted the eye throughout. Put the whole show in a modern art gallery, set it in motion and it would be declared a great work of art.

In a set that consisted largely of a range of greyish tones, the odd colour, such as Vittelia’s aggressive red hair, really stood out. At the end, just before curtain, Tito becomes deified a bath of white light. Long live Leopold II……..and Opera North!

Political Postscript

During the first performance of the opera on September 6th 1791, Leopold may have had other things on his mind. A few weeks earlier his sister, Marie Antionette and her husband King Louis of France had failed in their attempt to escape the revolution and had been dragged back to Paris. Three days before the performance, the new National Assembly had ratified a constitution that effectively ended the power of monarchy in France. As Leopold shuddered in his box, wondering if there were any reds under his own bed in the form of revolutionary sympathisers among the audience, could he possibly have foreseen the worst that was shortly to come – the beheading of his royal brother in law and sister?

John Leeman