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