(Salzburg Festival 2003; Wiener Philharmoniker conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt)
For my first opera DVD of the new year, I decided it was time to make the acquaintance of Mozart’s Clemenza. This is one of the most popular and frequently filmed operas out there and it can be hard to know where to start; but fortunately there was help on hand in the form of Dehggial, who writes the knowledgeable and deliciously irreverent blog Opera, innit. Dehggial has a particular fondness for Clemenza and recommended this production from the 2003 Salzburg Festival. It’s a rather austere, dark take on the opera with some splendid singing and powerful acting. It was only after buying it that I realised it had been designed by none other than Martin Kušej, which meant there were some interesting links with motifs from the Royal Opera House’s recent Idomeneo.
Sesto, best friend of the emperor Tito, is in love with the ambitious Vitellia. Unfortunately for him, Vitellia is just stringing him along while she tries to catch the eye of the emperor, for whom she believes she’d be the perfect wife. So far her aspirations have been thwarted because Tito had planned to take the foreign princess Berenice as his bride. But, as the opera opens, we hear that Berenice has been put aside due to popular ill-feeling and Tito is back on the marriage market. Vitellia’s hopes flare up again; but they’re swiftly doused. Seeking to flatter his friend, Tito announces that he’ll marry Sesto’s sister Servilia instead. Vitellia erupts into a vindictive fury. She’s now been passed over twice and we all know what they say about women scorned.
And in fact she isn’t the only one vexed by Tito’s decision. Servilia is already in love with Sesto’s sweet, reliable friend Annio, who reciprocates her feelings; and so, plucking up her courage, she goes to beg Tito to excuse her from this ‘honour’. Tito agrees, relieved that someone is speaking frankly for once, but in the meantime Vitellia’s indignation has spiralled out of control. Using all her influence over Sesto, she seduces him into becoming her instrument of revenge, turning him against his closest friend with vague promises of greater favour afterwards. Little does Sesto know, as he wrestles with his conscience, that Tito’s factotum Publio is on his way to finally offer Vitellia the emperor’s hand in marriage. But Publio comes too late. By the time he arrives, Sesto has been dispatched on a crusade of vengeance which will leave Rome in flames and the emperor’s life itself at stake.
It’s all impressive stuff and fortunately this production has a cast who are more than capable of wringing out the drama and agony of the story. Dorothea Röschmann makes an impressive Vitellia, full of fire and power-lust and completely aware of her own irresistibility to Sesto (indeed, she spends much of the opera in her lingerie and, when she does come in demurely dressed, this seems to be a significant comment on her psychological state). Although it’d be easy to dismiss Vitellia as a mere troublemaker, Röschmann does give her a bit more depth: she’s a woman who relishes control, but has no way to secure the future she desires and has been pushed beyond her limits of endurance. Her physical presence was matched by a commanding, very versatile voice: she took on some thrilling passages of coloratura and made them look easy.
Elīna Garanča’s beautiful clear voice seemed a very good fit for Annio, who came across here as earnest, decent and very young; but her restrained style of acting was ever so slightly overshadowed by the intense emoting going on all around her. Of the four leads, the one I had some difficulty with was Michael Schade’s Tito. That wasn’t due to Schade’s performance, which was strong, nor to his voice, which tackled the music with a sensitivity and gentleness that truly fitted the part. But I simply didn’t warm to the reading of the character here.
In this production Tito’s clemency isn’t the sign of a wise and benevolent ruler, but of that a man who verges on simplicity. He’s out of touch with the world around him, misguidedly determined to win over his people through forgiveness. Trapped in his labyrinthine palace and betrayed by those he loves the most, this Tito is a man-child, protected to some extent by his minder Publio. It’s no wonder that more forceful factions have been plotting against him. For me, portraying Tito as a bit of a simpleton undermined some of the power and pathos of the story; but then again, I don’t know how other productions have approached his characterisation. Barbara Bonney as Servilia was very enjoyable to listen to but rather overshadowed by the vocal displays of Kasarova and Röschmann; and Luca Pisaroni made a subtle, watchful Publio, with a pleasingly resonant voice; but, like Servilia, Publio doesn’t get much of a chance to shine.
The highlight for me was Vesselina Kasarova as Sesto. She has a fantastically rich and mellifluous voice, with fluidly resonant lower notes and strong high notes; but she also turned in a psychologically shrewd performance. I obviously don’t have any other interpretations to compare hers to, but I was very impressed by the depth that she gave to the character. She can convey volumes with the slightest change in facial expression. This Sesto knows that he’s being used. He’s a noble man undone by desire: you can practically see him giving way as Vitellia taunts him with Deh se piacer mi vuoi, and you can also see that he loathes himself for doing so.
The powerhouse aria was Parto, ma tu, ben mio, which is an aria full of complicated emotions: it’s the moment when Sesto realises that he’s going to betray his friend – it’s a realisation, not a decision, because he just can’t help himself – and he’s doing all this without being at all certain that Vitellia will actually be his afterwards. Kasarova started out with ‘Parto, parto‘ as a gentle, exquisitely modulated phrase of complete wretchedness, followed by the whole gamut of betrayal and despair, before the middle section kicks in, the tempo picks up and Sesto visibly straightens up as his resolution firms.
Not only was the acting very strong, but there were some blindingly good runs of coloratura at the end. (Speaking of the acting, I also loved the amount of emotion that Kasarova managed to pack into the two words ‘Ingrata, addio‘ which Sesto throws at Vitellia after he’s been arrested by Publio.) My one small gripe is that the costumes didn’t do much to disguise Kasarova’s and Garanča’s all too feminine figures; but that leads into a whole other discussion about en travesti roles in Baroque opera, which has been touched on elsewhere and is too complex for this post.
I’m not sure how well I get on with Kušej as a designer. I can usually appreciate what he’s trying to do and I find that many of his ideas are daring and creative, but there are some which don’t quite work for me. However, I did like the fact that Clemenza, like Idomeneo, ends up being a meditation on power and offers a similarly bleak view of life at the top. That’s made clear from the outset. During the overture we see Tito standing alone in the sprawling maze of his palace… dialling a number on the telephone. The phone rings, but no one answers. Tito’s expression changes from one of cautious expectation to resignation, and then to suspicion. Not only is he isolated, but he feels he’s being watched: he spends the last part of the overture frantically rushing through his palace, wrenching open doors and starting at half-heard noises. This is not a man who’s happy in his position. Indeed, this Tito might well agree with Shakespeare’s Henry IV: ‘Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.’
When I first saw the set – a three-tier warren of rooms and staircases on such a scale that the singers looked swamped – I couldn’t imagine how the theatre audiences managed to follow it: this is one production which is surely far better seen on DVD, where you can fully appreciate all the subtleties of the acting. However, the set grew on me. Despite its austerity and rough industrial finish, its tiered openings reminded me of Classical architecture: the Colosseum or the labyrinthine ruins on the Palatine Hill. And these are handy parallels. Kušej’s Tito unfolds in a barren world stripped of intimacy: an arena; a place where you are never sure whether you’re alone or, crucially, whether someone else is watching. That sensation is helped by having the three tiers, each of which seems to have its own significance.
The lowest level, where Tito holds court, seems to be the world of the frank, the open and the straightforward. Tito spends most of his time on this level and this is where the main public scenes play out. The second level seemed to be the sphere of intrigue and mixed messages. Sesto and Vitellia’s scenes played out here and there was a lot of action on this level during the confusion of the fire sequence. The final, third level seemed to be reserved for surveillance or for deep introspection: Sesto retreated as far as he could into a corner of this level after he thought he’d attacked Tito. The idea of the different layers reminded me a bit of the dream-levels in Inception.
But not everything works so well. I wasn’t keen on the crowds of tourists who came barging into Tito’s room just before the chorus of Serbate, o Dei, custodi. They mill around, gawp at the furnishings and take photos with Tito while he sits motionless on his bed. I couldn’t quite decide what to make of them. Was it a sign that Tito was being too open and trusting in his desire to win the love of the people? Or was it trying to make a further point about Tito’s isolation, in showing that one can be permanently surrounded by people, but still lonely in the midst of a crowd? If so, then I appreciated the sentiment but I didn’t like how it was carried out: it felt gimmicky. I thought the same point was made more successfully in Act 2 where Tito wrestles with his conscience beneath the eyes of a silent mob, pressed up against glass windows on the first-floor level like visitors at a zoo. As an emperor, even your deepest uncertainties and fears become public.
The other concept that baffled me was one which also cropped up in Idomeneo: the unnerving children who appear during the overture and then again in the finale. At the beginning they stand silently in the openings of the vast set while Tito sits isolated below after his paranoid race through the palace. There was something rather ominous about the children, but I didn’t quite understand what they were meant to represent. Eventually I cautiously decided that they might be symbols of Tito’s enduring innocence, which will soon be dashed by his best friend’s betrayal. That reading also worked in the disturbing finale, where the children reappear and are laid out on tables surrounded by grave black-clad adults. The tableaux looked almost like acts of cannibalism; but in my reading this represented innocence finally being overpowered and destroyed by age and cynicism. The problem is, I just feel that I’m being pushed too hard to read something profound into it. Still. Let’s look on the bright side. At least there wasn’t a shark.
This was definitely a very good introduction to Clemenza (so thank you, Dehggial!) and it’s a good place to begin with an opera that seems to have more than its fair share of wacky productions. However, I am looking forward to seeing how a more traditional interpretation would fare. As we all know, I do like a bit of 18th-century costume and so I have my eye on the 2012 production from the Met in New York, which has Garanča as Sesto, so it’ll be interesting to compare her treatment of the two roles.