Wednesday 23 July 2014

Munich Opera Festival (2) - La clemenza di Tito, 19 July 2014

Images: © Wilfried Hösl
Sesto (Tara Erraught) and
Vitellia (Kristine Opolais)
Nationaltheater, Munich

Tito – Toby Spence
Vitellia – Kristïne Opolais
Sesto – Tara Erraught
Servilia – Hanna-Elisabeth Müller
Annio – Anna Stéphany
Publio – Tareq Nazmi

Jan Bosse (director)
Victoria Behr (costumes)
Ingo Bracke (lighting)
Bibi Abel (video)
Miron Hakenbeck (dramaturgy)

Chorus of the Bavarian State Opera (chorus master: Sören Eckhoff)
Bavarian State Orchestra
Ádám Fischer (conductor)



It had been a while since I had seen La clemenza di Tito in the theatre, though I spend a good deal of time on it when teaching. Alas, there was little to cheer about here, save for some of the singing. Ádám Fischer’s listless conducting only had me long for Sir Colin Davis, in the pit for the sole convincing musical performance I have heard ‘live’; Jan Bosse’s stage direction had me longing for just about anything else.

Fischer, first: his role was puzzling. If anything, I’d have expected someone from at least the quasi-authenticist wing to harry the score. And that is what the Overture sounded like: grand neo-Classicism reduced to something impatiently knocking on the door of small-scale Rossini (without the gloss or the bubbles). Thereafter, however, Fischer tended to maul the score, rarely letting it settle at one tempo or another. Not that there is anything wrong with tempo variations; far from it. But Fischer seemed unable to find a general pulse for an aria, let alone for any greater structural unit. The great public scenes were scaled down: surely this calls for a reasonable-size chorus.  Perhaps worst of all was the lugubrious pacing of many of the secco recitatives: in this of all Mozart’s works, we really do not need to dwell on them, since they are many, they are not his work, and they are sometimes frankly unsatisfactory in terms of where they tonally lead us. For some reason I could never establish, they were mostly given with harpsichord, but a few with fortepiano. The Bavarian State Orchestra played well enough, considering, but as with Dan Ettinger’s dreadful Figaro two nights earlier, it was difficult to shy away from the conclusion that the orchestra would have been better off without a conductor. Certainly in this case, it would have been better off without the more interventionist aspects of Fischer’s decidedly peculiar interpretation.

Tito (Toby Spence) and chorus members
Bosse’s staging? Ultimately, as a friend wearily remarked to me during the interval, it reflects the seeming inability of a large number of opera directors to take opera seria seriously, as it were, let alone to take this extraordinary late example of the form for what it is. Caterina Mazzolà’s often drastic revision of Metastasio was acknowledged neither for what it had become, nor for what it had been, and certainly not for what Mozart transformed it into. It is difficult to discern any understanding of the classical conception of opera seria as spoken theatre with additional music having come into conflict, whether in work and reception, with later-eighteenth-century æsthetics, which had ascribed greater importance to music – unless, that is, it be nodded to by having the excellent solo clarinettist sit on the edge of the pit to be looked at by Sesto and then later by Vitellia. It is equally difficult to discern any sense of the political, of this coronation opera as, in words I have used for an article elsewhere, ‘a compulsory class in a school for ruler and ruled’.  It is just all a bit silly, with various people wandering around in ludicrously exaggerated visions of eighteenth-century dress, the size of Vitellia’s dress especially ridiculous. Wigs look as though I have been taken from an LSD-user’s vision of Amadeus. The trouser roles offer a bit of gender confusion, in that the characters’ dress seems as much female as male. And that is it: none of those ‘ideas’ is really developed, let alone related to the work. The only other feature I can recall worthy of comment is the general change from black to white between acts and the banal apparent conclusion that the characters find themselves through the burning of the Capitol. Of revolution, of counter-revolution, of Enlightened absolutism, of aristocratic revanchism: there is nothing. What on earth the dramaturge was offering for his fee I cannot imagine. And of Mozart: well, there is, if anything, still less.

Toby Spence had his good moments, more in the second act than the first, but had some strikingly unsteady moments too. He certainly was not helped by the direction, which seemed limited to having him wander around uncertainly in a sheet. I felt rather conflicted about Kristïne Opolais. There was no doubting the committed nature of her performance as Vitellia, but the nature of the application was not always necessarily appropriate. In the first act, she sometimes sounded as though she would have been happier singing Puccini, forsaking Mozart’s line for generalised ‘operatic’ sounds and gestures that have little or no place in his world. The second act was much better, though, ‘Non più di fiori’ an undoubted highlight, in which even Fischer got his act together to lead a strikingly successful transition into the finale. (It was a rare, much appreciated example of an ill-behaved audience not being permitted indiscriminately to applaud.) Tara Erraught and Anna Stéphany were more or less beyond reproach as Sesto and Annio, clean of line and clear of dramatic purpose – at least insofar as the production permitted. Both would grace the Mozart ensembles of any house. Hanna-Elisabeth Müller, the Susanna in that earlier Figaro, impressed once again as Servilia; if anything, the role – and form – seemed to suit her better still. Tareq Nazmi’s Publio, again not helped by a production which seemed to have the character down as simply a bit of a weirdo, could have been more cleanly sung. And there we have it: an opera seria performance as if from the bad old days, when the drama was seen as secondary to the singers, when the music was barely understood for what it is. Not for the first time, I longed for Gérard Mortier and the Herrmanns.