MOZART La Clemenza di Tito (Ticciati)
Claus Guth’s staging of La clemenza di Tito takes place entirely within a split-level set: the private scenes of emotional and political crises (and therefore almost all arias) are set outdoors in a nature landscape of tall grasses, dirt, rocks and pools, whereas public scenes (including the Romans’ choruses) take place up a staircase in a mezzanine-like modernist palace. During the overture a film conveys halcyon memories of Tito and Sesto’s childhood friendship (they roam around meadows, play by a river and shoot at objects with catapults), and these images return to haunt the grown men when the emperor has to decide whether or not to execute his best friend for treason. There are very few props, although a handgun being pointed around at length and used for phallic innuendo in Vitellia’s ‘Deh, se piacer mi vuoi’ is a ubiquitous cliché. Most other elements of Guth’s production are sensitively respectful to the core dramatic principles of Tito’s dignity, loneliness and conflicts (both personal and political); he is shown to struggle towards Christ-like benevolence in the face of the overwhelming guilt of sinful conspirators.
Richard Croft’s mature acting and ardent singing vividly bring to life Tito’s torn emotions (he appears as a man so worn by the cares of duty that every nuance of ‘Del più sublime soglio’ is credible). The cruel manipulation by Alice Coote’s psychotic Vitellia of Anna Stéphany’s puppyish Sextus is painful to observe, yet their respective trajectories to nobly selfless lover and penitent heroine are etched to perfection. Joélle Harvey’s noble sweetness is the direct prompt of lucid reason and virtuous morality (‘S’altro che lagrime’) for Vitellia’s awakening conscience in ‘Non più di fiori’ (its basset-horn obbligato played impeccably by Katherine Spencer).
The message of the splendid finale is clumsily subverted: the implication is that all five main characters who exercise or benefit from clemency have been murdered on the orders of the usurper Publio – portrayed by Clive Bayley as a sinister mandarin-like public servant who detests Tito’s weakness. It transpires that the heroes are ghosts whose idealised virtues cannot prosper in the real world. Other than the enlightened spirit of Mozart’s drama being given an artificially bitter aftertaste, Guth’s production is rewarding and insightful. Robin Ticciati’s conducting is briskly rhythmical and episodic, and the OAE play with their customary reliability and quality.