Mozart’s Radiant “Real Opera”
05/03/2008 - and May 6, 10, 15
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: La Clemenza di Tito
Tamar Iveri (Vitellia), Susan Graham (Sesto), Ramón Vargas (Tito), Heidi Grant Murphy (Servilia), Anke Vondung (Annio), Oren Gradus (Publio), Elena Duare (Berenice)
Anthony McGill (Clarinet), James Ognibene (Basset horn), Metropolitan Opera Chorus, Donald Palumbo (Director), Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Harry Bicket (Conductor)
Jean-Pierre Ponnelle (Production, Sets and Costume Designer), Gil Wechsler (Lighting Designer), Laurie Feldman (Stage Director)
During the middle of the final scene of La Clemenza di Tito, with a weeping repentant Sesto, a bereft Vitellia, and an Emperor deciding whether to grant clemency to those who wanted to kill him, the auditorium lights suddenly came on. Perhaps it was a technical error, but the sudden radiance which brought the sepia Roman stage in line with the audience was a radiant moment. As it should have been. Because this, the work which Mozart said was “real opera” was the most radiant production of the season.
The production might be old, but Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s classical Augustean setting, with its changing backdrops, its grisaille effects and the scrim curtain revelations, was as noble as the music. While Tito is not Mozart’s most popular opera (James Levine resurrected it in 1984), Ponelle has given it a look which combines 18th Century Classical (the costumes and of course singing) and Roman architecture. A columned courtyard with holograph-looking backcloths, a trireme ship leaving the port, and perhaps the most effective scene of all. A scrim curtain is over the chorus welcoming the Emperor, while in front, on the stage, is Vitellia dressed in black, the symbol of pure desolation.
As to Ponnelle’s direction, he has discovered that trick which few operatic directors understand: that even in the most glorious arias and ensemble pieces, people do not stand still. People come in from stage left and stage right, the soloists cross stage with the emotion of their singing, and the opera becomes actually fluid. Yes,, the movement frequently confuses audiences who want to stop the action and applaud. But the show is the thing. When Titus sings of anger for losing his great friend, he is not afraid to run across the stage or literally bang on the table. Vitellia dressed in white with sleeves like angel-wings, is actually a Lady Macbeth, and in her opening scene, she literally seduces Sesto into assassinating the Emperor. Yes, this is Classical opera, but it was tactile, dramatic, fiercely emotional.
Conductor Harry Rickert kept the drama moving from the overture, continuing onto Vitellia and Sesto singing of death while having just exited from a rather large bed. The two female voices and the obvious sexual import made much of the opera sound very Straussian indeed. Yet these voices were theatrical as well as musical. The imperious Vitellia, as played by Georgian soprano Tama Iveri, was so proud, so arrogant—and so evil—that her Act II surrender to the fates was all the more gripping. Her famous long aria, Non piu di fiori was a stunning demonstration of great voice. Her male “sex slave”, Sestus, was played by Susan Graham (the original was a 250-pound castrato), a mezzo who was equally dramatic.
Ramón Vargas was Emperor Titus, but he was no one-dimensional leader. Frustration, anger, and, in Se all’impero a strong, healthy voice with all the right ornaments was fine. Alas, we never knew how good an Emperor he was since many of the recitatives were cut down to nothing. Musically, this was no loss, but losing the first scene description of the Emperor was a loss of drama.
One must mention Heidi Grant Murphy and Amike Vondung in their marvelous love duet, a stentorian Oren Gradus as Publio, and clarinet and basset-horn solos by Andrew McGill and James Ognibene. Mozart wrote both for same soloist as in the Clarinet Concerto. He would have been proud.
By the time that this noble, duet-filled innovative opera was almost over, and those lights were turned on, nobody even thought about it. Just about everything had been so powerful throughout the night, that a little extra glow was only natural.