Cher Public

Capitol gains

Clemency tends to get a bad rap these days, as polities demand swift action by leaders whose mandates to govern are violently threatened by “terrorists.” Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito refocuses our attention on clemency as a virtue and a signal of strength and courage. I was fortunate to catch Wednesday’s opening performance of a new production of this opera at the Théâtre des Champs Élysées, directed by Denis Podalydès (Sociétaire de la Comédie-Français). 

While the staging is well paced and musically excellent, it does not offer any significant insights into this Roman Emperor and the internal and (external?) forces that compel him to tear up a death sentence intended for his one-time friend Sesto, following an assassination attempt.

Clemenza is one of Mozart’s most accomplished, but also most controversial operas. Einstein famously called the title character “nothing but a mere puppet representing magnanimity,” while others have countered that the piece displays Mozart “responding with music of restraint, nobility and warmth to a new kind of stimulus.”

Podalydès’production does not resolve questions as to the quality or significance of the opera, though his excellent singers fully commit to their portrayals—with the loudest cheers going deservedly to Kate Lindsey’s Sesto—and demonstrate, at the very least, the major musical achievement that is his second-last opera (his finale, Die Zauberflöte, premiered the same year, 1791). Yet the score sounds fresh, writhing with nervous energy and emotional baggage. It is a significant departure from Idomeneo, Mozart’s other prominent opera seria, given its less strict structure and increased focus on creating a musical palette for each character.

As the vengeful Vitellia—who is profoundly hurt when Tito does not choose her as his empress—Karina Gauvin, a Canadian soprano known for her recordings of Baroque opera, makes her debut in a stage production in France. Though she showed no signs of dramatic discomfort and indeed was a compelling presence, the role proved highly challenging. Her big second-act aria, “Non più di fiori,” revealed a big, grand voice but the coloratura was effortful rather than “freeing,”and the lower notes were swallowed up by the (otherwise gentle) orchestra.

Vitellia sends Sesto to exact revenge against the emperor. Sesto firmly agrees, singing the famous aria, “Parto, parto.” Lindsey, an American mezzo-soprano who I first heard in the Met’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann, made a strong impression in this trouser role. Her legato singing was particularly accomplished and she captured Sesto’s wrestling between his love for Vitellia and his moral conscience. Tenor Kurt Streit sang an appealing Tito, though his “nice” portrayal did little to refute Einstein’s aforementioned critique.

Julie Fuchs—whom I thoroughly enjoyed the other week in a laid-back recital of Poulenc and various French film composers—sounded ravishing in her all-too-brief appearance as Servilia, Sesto’s sister who is not afraid to reject Tito. Also impressive in their arias, and throughout the evening, were mezzo-soprano Julia Boulianne and bass-baritone Robert Gleadow (bringing the total number of fellow Canadians to three, in a cast of six, no less!) as Annio (Sesto’s friend) and the commander Publio, respectively.

Podalydès places the action in a grand, deep, wood-paneled hotel—designed by Eric Ruf—sometime between the two World Wars. Add to the mix some haute couture by Christian Lacroix (ah, the perks of opera in Paris!) and you have an aesthetically pleasing staging. Yet it is hardly a static “pretty picture. “In addition to dramatically engaged singers, a troupe of actors effectively intensifies the atmosphere surrounding the various love affairs and Sesto’s assassination attempt. One of these actors recites a soliloquy in French prior to the initial strains of the overture. Don’t ask me what it was, though it was certainly striking and, consistent with the theme of the opera, focused on the notion of wanting to love and be loved.

I would be remiss if I did not praise Le Cercle de l’Harmoniewith those period instruments the Parisians seem to adore so much in opera here—and the Chœur Aedes, whose singers were radiant and also very well utilized by Podalydès. Maestro Rhorer confidently marshalled the musical forces and he seemed to be right therewith the singers (the small pit meant he was literally only about two meters from them most of the time).

A particular challenge for the creative team was staging the burning of the Capitol—the result of Sesto’s assassination attempt—at the end of the first half. They wisely allowed Mozart’s ominous yet almost delirious music to dominate the scene, and the second act curtain revealed a modest catastrophe, with chairs turned over and the like.

Mozart’s Clemenza di Tito is a fascinating piece of opera seria daring to explore the powerful force that is love, from which not even a monarch can exercise immunity. Be sure not to miss Podalydès’ new production when it is broadcast on ARTE and on the theatre’s website on December 18th.

Photo: Vincent Pontet / WikiSpectacle

  • Oh good. This topic allows me to vent one of my pet peeves. I think some directors are frustrated by Tito’s clemency and they try to insert extra angst into his character. I’ve seen productions where Tito’s realms is presented as some sort of tyrannical hellhole. And Tito himself is presented as an angry, violent man. And frankly, I just don’t see it in the words or music.

    Tito is very conflicted, yes. His clemency does not come to him without significant internal struggle, no doubt. But this does not seem to be adequate for some directors who are desperate to pile some sort of 21st-century angst-driven psychosis on the character.

    Chris Alden’s production (for Chicago Opera Theatre and later seen in Toronto) turned Tito into a self-loathing homosexual. And Michael Schade portrayed his inner struggle as just pure anger (I’ve seen him to do this in another production too). Meanwhile, Vitellia who is the most interesting character and undergoes the most remarkable transformation, was presented as a raving harpee.

    I should say that while this was by far my least favourite production by Chris Alden, it still had interesting elements in it but I just hated the take on Tito and Vitellia.

    • It has sometimes struck me, too, that when staging Don Giovanni, today’s directors prefer to forget the “giocoso” bit of the “dramma”.

      • Oh yeah. A story about a young, carefree and incorrigible womanizer has become a dark psychological drama, with no sense of fun at all. Mind you, I still get a lot out of DG productions that emphasise the dramatic. Tcherniakov’s production (which I will see in a couple of months) is utterly lacking in joy and fun. But it is still fascinating to watch (and superbly executed).

        • armerjacquino

          To be fair, the ‘young, carefree and incorrigible womanizer’ is discovered attempting rape, immediately commits murder, attempts another rape an hour later, beats someone nearly to death, and is then dragged to hell. I think the darkness is pretty explicitly already in the piece. Yes, some productions miss the ‘giocoso’ side but let’s not pretend this is a jolly little romp being hijacked.

          • armerjacquino

            (Not that you were, kashania: but some do)

            • turings

              Yeah, there are a lot of joyless Don Giovannis at the moment – seems to be particularly hard for directors to deal with. Not that it should be a jolly romp, but a lot of productions (Tcherniakov, Guth, Schwab, Holten’s Juan …) attribute to Don Giovanni a sort of angsty introspection that I don’t see in the text, and yet exculpate him in relation to Donna Anna, who becomes an unpleasant rape fantasist (though not in Schwab). Giovanni is oddly passive, even pitable.

            • turings

              (Which I don’t find a very compelling reading of the piece, just to be clear).

          • I think the real issue is how one is viewing Giovanni’s actions.

            If we view them objectively through a modern sensibility, then yes, all you say is true (though the murder is accidental and he tries to avoid the duel in the first place).

            But if view his actins through Giovanni’s perspective and a 17th century nobleman’s viewpoint, then things are different. It would never occur to Giovanni that he committed any kind of rape. And he would probably view his actions (reprehensible as they may be to us) as perfectly within his rights as a 17th century nobleman.

            For me, what gets lost is Giovanni being portrayed as a lighthearted and carefree rascal. Our modern view of him is usually imposed on him and he suddenly becomes this dark, self-loathing man who abuses women as an escape from his inner demons.

            Again, the opera is strong enough to take any number of interpretations. But the giocosa part has completely fallen victim to a 20th-century psychological analysis of the title character.

            • armerjacquino

              Except that his actions are viewed as reprehensible enough for Anna, Ottavio and Elvira to pursue him to the death. It’s made clear that, even by the values of the time and through the prism of his nobility, his actions are utterly beyond the pale.

              ‘Come mai creder deggio di si nero delitto capace un cavaliero’ is not something you say about a ‘carefree rascal’. I’m not imposing any kind of 20th century psychological analysis. By the standards of the time, his actions are viewed as unacceptable. Questo e il fin di chi fa mal= he’s gone to hell because he deserved to.

            • turings

              I agree, armer, but there the punishment comes from outside – the commendatore comes and drags him down to hell, while he refuses to repent or acknowledge what he’s done. In the sort of approaches we’ve seen recently, he seems aware of his own dreadfulness, and the punishment is a psychological one, that he in some sense imposes on himself. So that’s a big change in the characterization.

              And it is often staged in such a way that he doesn’t assault Donna Anna, and the women are sexually aggressive, which changes the dynamics of the story – possibly because directors want their central character to be sympathetic. But that makes caricatures of the women, and is a bit of a cop out when it comes to Giovanni, in the sense that it avoids what we might still find unacceptable and troubling about his actions.

            • Thank you, turings. I was going for two points but my second point didn’t come across very well. It’s not only about how his actions are portrayed, it’s about how he himself is portrayed. Right up to the very end, Giovanni doesn’t give a flying fig how any of his actions have affected others. No matter how reprehensible we and the other characters find his actions, they don’t bother him one whit. That’s why I find Giovanni as a dark, tortured individual to be an overdone 20th century construct.

              I also think that a point can be made that Mozart and Da Ponte were gently mocking the other characters, especially all their righteous lecturing in the final sextet.

            • la_cowntessa

              …I may have created an account just to reply to @kashania, because Don G. and Mozart are amongst my obsessions…

              At any rate, the final sextet was added as a sop to censors, and was NOT Mozart’s original ending, nor yet his intent for the piece. His original composition ended, rather darkly, with, well, Giovanni going to hell.

              All things considered, it’s really hard to argue that Mozart saw DG as a light-hearted rascal, a rapscallion. And really, have you actually *listened* Donna Elvira’s music? That’s…not something you sing about a guy who’s just misunderstood.

        • Haneke’s Paris production is pretty grim too (but good). It will be back in 2015-2016 apparently.

          • Haneke’s Cosi (reviewed on this blog at one point) is similar to Tcherniakov’s DG. I can’t say I agree with his take but it is superbly executed and fascinating to watch.

            Despina is a tortured character, and her whole jolly disposition is just an act. However, the director’s vision imposes itself on the musical performance as well. All the recits are taken very slowly, with long pauses in between. The effect is dramatically arresting but really sucks the sparkle out of the music.

            • kennedet

              Really? I just finished reading a literal translation of Cosi and I found Despina just as dismissive towards love as Don Alfonso. I would say almost a female Don Alfonso in reverse. She tells the two sisters if their lovers die in battle, they will have plenty other to console them. This statement comes before she encounters Don Alfonso and plans their intrigues.

      • Chanterelle

        Too right! (nothing to do with Clemenza, though I’d argue that Vitellia is Donna Elvira without the edge of caricature.)

    • Camille

      That’s interesting, as Giuseppe Filianoti made it all very clear and came across with no problem as to what was going on and where his reservation was and the manner in which his clemency proceeded seemed a very logical and organic outcome There is really nothing that “hard” about it, other than the fact modern minds have a bit of a struggle with the ancient mind and its corresponding set of ethics. Different world.

      • RosinaLeckermaul

        What has happened to Giuseppe Filianoti. He seems to have disappeared from view. I hope he isn’t ill again.

        • Camille

          He was to have sung performances with the COC of Roberto Devereux and had to cancel to go back home…you should ask Kashania for the details. It was the final straw that made me give up on my Toronto expedition, for I really set great store by him and hope he is getting better.

          A bit later, I happened to notice he sang a concert recital in Calabria of Cilèa’s music, and have no idea what has happened since nor if he is still ill. One may check to see what his schedule indicates.

          I hope he is staying well, as he is a lovely singer.

          • Filianoti had to fly home for family reasons or something like that. But my impression is that it was just as well that those reasons came up… Just before arriving in Toronto, he had been released from a Hoffman down in Florida.

            • Gualtier M

              Filianoti has given interviews discussing a paralyzed vocal cord -- a result of his 2006 thyroid surgery. He seems to be taking a year off to rest and restudy. Two new roles are on his docket in 2015 -- Pelleas, Gabriele Adorno (too heavy) and Cavaradossi.


    • Perles75

      I believe that a shade of a darker side of Tito could quite easily be found if the directors took the disturb of reading the original Metastasio libretto.

      It’s very hidden between the lines, but it happens in connection with a subplot of the story (cut in the Mozart version) where Annio exchanges his cape with Sesto after the coup attempt. Of course, the cape has a symbol that identifies the conspirators, and Annio is mistaken as one. The subplot is actually dismissed quite rapidly, but Tito’s reaction when he learns of Annio’s possible involvement in the conspiracy is quite interesting: he has basically the only fit of rage of the opera and condemns Annio without hesitation. Of course this is in contrast with Tito’s reaction when he learns Sesto’s involvement. Then you think that the acts of clemency of Tito are either very public (the scene in the first act about the Vesuvius, or the amnesty towards the slanderers) or concern Sesto directly…

      I’m sure a clever director could be able to play intelligently around this facet of Tito’s personality, which verges on the obsession for Sesto, even if it doesn’t appear directly in Mozart’s opera and without falling into the trap of self-loathing homosexuality.

      I also agree that also Vitellia is often misunderstood in modern productions: she’s no Idomeneo’s Elettra and her motives concern politics (regaining her father’s throne) and personal honor more than romance. She’s a wily manipulatrix, a force with important political backing, more than a woman made crazy by unrequited love.
      It shouldn’t be that hard…

  • Camille

    Very interesting to hear of this production et grand merci!

    Kate Lindsey, in singing Annio here at the MET, made me sit up to attention and take great notice of her in a part I would usually snooze on through, and I hope great things for her, and that someday she’ll get to wear a dress!! Brava divetta!

    The same may be said for the French Canadienne, Julie Boulianne, who was excellent in the part of Ascanio in the last edition of Les Troyens. I hope to hear more from her, as well, and only wish the voice were a tad larger, as it is quite lovely and would be nicer to hear in some leading roles. Bonne chance!

    • turings

      I loved Kate Lindsey as Nicklausse in Munich earlier this year – a real stage animal too, loads of presence.

  • redbear

    Didn’t see this thread and posted something on today’s thread about Clemenza and Kate. I agree that it was a super show. The production was in an upscale wood-paneled hotel lobby and the supers were guests and workers who were gawking at the celebs.
    (Side issue. When An American in Paris opening on Broadway in March, those who accumulated tickets for the next month or two can sell them on eBay and make real money. The run in Paris, until Jan 6, has been sold out for a while.)

    • redbear

      The fire was in the backstage dining area you could see thru a door. There was lots of smoke but it looked to me like some flambe went out of control.

    • Adam Moscoe

      Well I hope American in Paris succeeds at the Palace Theatre in NYC, where audiences are less accustomed to extended ballet sequences. Absolutely loved the Chatalet production. Thank goodness for Max von Essen, though, or there would be a serious lack of vocal excitement.

  • Howling in Tune

    “Le Cercle de l’Harmonie--with those period instruments the Parisians seem to adore so much in opera here”

    You say that like it’s a bad thing …