Vancouver Opera taps Mozart's humanism in La Clemenza di Tito
By Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. A Vancouver Opera production at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Saturday, February 5. Continues February 8, 10, and 12
There isn’t a lot of action in La Clemenza di Tito, Mozart’s underappreciated and rarely performed last opera. But the music is so exquisitely embroidered and the characters are so conflicted that with any more elements, it would lose its power.
As it is, the characters and their dazzlingly lyrical music need to breathe, something the buzzed-about American opera-production team of director Chas Rader-Shieber and designer David Zinn seem to have considered in their stylized yet stark sets. In the first act, a pastiche of sleek white colonnades and Roman emperors’ busts plays off the singers’ elaborate all-black 18th-century gowns and suits. The overall effect is as elegantly striking as jet against linen. When colour does appear judiciously, as it does with courtiers armed with massive bouquets or when red flames engulf a Roman faí§ade, the effect is startling. By the second act, after Rome burns and as the empire threatens to crumble, rococo chairs lay upended and the leads wear white versions of their costumes to match the sets, their clothing smudged with black ashes to signal the inner and outer demise.
The plot’s central conflict focuses around Vitellia, daughter of the deposed leader of Rome, who’s livid that the new emperor, Tito, has passed her over as his new wife. She seduces the lovelorn Sesto into a plot to murder Tito. Like all the characters, Sesto is deeply torn: Tito is a close friend and a benevolent ruler who trusts him implicitly.
An ill Mozart is believed by many to have written Clemenza in a staggering three weeks, in a rush to present it for Leopold II’s coronation as the king of Bohemia. Because it’s an opera seria, much of the slim plot serves as a showcase for virtuoso singing. On the downside, there is a huge amount of recitatives, and the main characters are prone to standing and singing about the nature of loyalty and mercy. However, the singers here shaded the complex psychology of the characters, and aided by the expressivity of the orchestra, they tapped the humanism that makes Mozart so appealing.
New Brunswick soprano Wendy Nielsen was on fire as the conniving Vitellia, effortlessly racing through her frantic Act 1 arpeggios. And yet she could pull back into guilt and sorrow in a gorgeous, complex trio with Sesto and Publio, as Sesto says farewell to go to court in the second act. Nielsen’s lower and mid-range are richer than one would usually think of for Mozart, but perfect for the role—though sometimes she got close to shrieking in her higher register.
Even more of a standout was Krisztina Szabó’s Sesto, a part sung by a castrato in the work’s 1791 debut. Blessed with a honeyed mezzo, she made her pants role real and tormented. John Tessier’s tenor was gentle and mellifluous, and he brought self-questioning depth to a character that can be one-note. He also effortlessly manoeuvred the pummelling arpeggios during the emotional aria when he must decide whether to throw Sesto to the “wild beasts” at the amphitheatre.
Maestro Jonathan Darlington took on the unimaginable double duty of the fortepiano for all those recitatives (along with principal cellist Ariel Barnes). And from the elaborate clarinet obbligati on down, his orchestra polished all the score’s embellishments to a fine sheen, with the clarity and restraint Mozart demands.
The music may not send you rushing out to buy a recording of it, nor stick with you the way, say, Don Giovanni’s “Commendatore scene” or The Marriage of Figaro’s “letter duet” might. But as his diehard fans would agree, it’s always a privilege to get to know Mozart a little better.