(Glyndebourne, 31 July 2017)
As the overture plays, we watch two boys running through a wheat-field on grainy old film: the older one dark and responsible; the younger, blond and cherubic. The older boy teaches his friend how to use a catapult fashioned from a v-shaped stick, aiming at an old bottle, but the little one isn’t content until he spots a magpie perched in a tree. His aim is too true: the magpie falls. The spot of blood on its breast is the only hint of colour as the music comes to an end and gathers itself ready for Act I. This strangely haunting little film was our introduction to Glyndebourne’s Clemenza di Tito: a fantastic production which places renewed emphasis on the troubled relationship between the emperor Titus and his boyhood friend.
It’s been a while since I wrote about Tito, so a brief summary for those of you unfamiliar with the plot. It’s fairly straightforward, because the original text by Metastasio was pared down by Caterino Mazzolà, then court poet in Vienna. Mazzolà reduced the story to its essentials, focusing on a tightly-wound knot of friendship, lust and ambition. Titus, following his father Vespasian, is now emperor of Rome. He wants only to make his people happy, and so he sends away the Jewish princess Berenice, whom he loves but the mob hates, and deals lightly with petty criminals, like blasphemers. Unfortunately, one woman won’t be placated by any amount of goodness. This is Vitellia, daughter of the former emperor Vitellius, who was deposed by Vespasian (this much is all true). Vitellia seethes to think that Titus is sitting on the throne that her father should have had – or, even better, that she should have. As Rome wouldn’t countenance an Empress, she’s chosen the next best thing: to marry Titus. But Titus (or Tito, as I’ll call him from now on) has overlooked her twice. There won’t be a third time.
Vitellia has a secret weapon: her infatuated lover Sesto, who just happens to be Tito’s childhood friend. Stringing him along with a combination of scorn and sweetness, she talks him into leading a revolt against Tito, which will destroy the Capitol and leave Rome leaderless – no doubt intending to step into the breach herself. Sesto resists, but events are rolling on without him. Tito has decided to replace Berenice with Sesto’s sister Servilia, who is unfortunately very much in love with Sesto’s other best friend Annio; and the news drives Vitellia to new heights of venom-spitting indignation. Driven to the edge of endurance, and longing to prove himself to his beloved, Sesto agrees to do what must be done. But fate has a trick in store for Vitellia. As she waits for news, Annio arrives with a message: Tito has changed his mind and will marry her, not Servillia. Vitellia is vindicated. But where is Sesto? As flames rise over the Capitol, and news comes that Tito himself has been killed, Vitellia realises that she has made a terrible mistake.
That’s not the whole plot (spoiler: Tito isn’t dead), but it covers enough. We’d been wondering what to expect from the setting, because this production is directed by Claus Guth, who did the game-show Poppea we saw in Vienna. I seem to have enjoyed that more than my friends did, so the levels of trepidation were high. But we needn’t have worried. Guth and his designer Christian Schmidt conjured up a wonderful, bleak land of lost innocence, influenced by the multi-level production from Salzburg but very much holding its own. When the curtain goes up, we see that the wheat-fields of Tito’s and Sesto’s childhood have been built over. Tito’s cold metal office – a place of steel pillars and scant comforts – stretches into the field, though a forlorn strip of long grass, puddles and rocks clings on at the front of the stage. For me, it was an opposition between civilisation and wildness, between resignation and freedom.
I thought it significant that Tito’s scenes as emperor took place up in the metal office, while his more human scenes took place down among the puddles and scrubland of his lost childhood. Unlike his prime minister Publio, and the Roman mob, Tito doesn’t belong in the halls of power. He pines for something simpler and more honest. But perhaps Tito has misunderstood, because Nature can be as cruel and heartless as any soulless office. Indeed, enter Sesto: a creature of the wild, spending most of his time among the reeds and rocks, where he couples with the older, well-bred Vitellia like a frenzied labourer from D.H. Lawrence. Sesto hasn’t put the impulses and unruliness of childhood behind him as Tito has. And a child who kills a magpie – a bird of prophecy and omen, remember; a creature whose head is easily turned by shiny superficiality – can grow up into a man who can kill his fellow man. This certainly isn’t the urbane, courtly Sesto I saw in the Met’s version of the opera. This Sesto has darkness deep within him.
The production has been bedevilled by cast changes, making it even harder to know what to expect. The original Tito, Steve Davislim, left two weeks before opening night on account of ‘artistic differences’ (tantalising) and was replaced with Richard Croft. I didn’t really mind who played Tito, but I did give a howl of grief when I heard that Sesto would no longer be played by Kate Lindsey (who was the reason I’d booked). And the anxiety was further ramped up when Alice Coote, our Vitellia, posted a photo on Twitter the day before our visit, showing herself in a neck brace as the result of a freak accident. Surely we couldn’t lose all three principals? Fate smiled on us though. Showing true British pluck, Coote decided to go ahead and simply had an announcement at the start, asking for our indulgence. Never was indulgence less necessary.
You can play Vitellia in different ways, but she often becomes slightly older than Sesto: a manipulative, elegantly bored woman diverting herself with a handsome face. That was the line taken here, but Coote’s Vitellia was a simmering mixture of provocateur and pragmatist. She handled Sesto effortlessly, her Deh, se piacer mi vuoi a masterclass in reeling in an unwilling younger man. Apparently it’s rare to have a mezzo singing this role, but I thought Coote managed the range beautifully: a slightly deeper voice adds to the air of worldly experience. And her acting was just perfect: flirtatious when she had to be, full of vindictive fire at other times, like the recitative just before Parto, parto, when she spits at the hapless Sesto, demanding to know why the Capitol isn’t on fire yet. Sesto points out that she herself told him to hold off. ‘How can you say you love me,‘ Vitellia snaps, ‘when you don’t understand me?‘ There was a soft (and rather unfair) rumble of sympathetic laughter from the men in the audience. This Vitellia lures Sesto along until she has confused his loyalties and almost broken him. She certainly never seems to love him – pity, yes, but love? Not a chance. It’s telling that this isn’t one of those productions where Tito marries the two of them off at the end. He’s far too focused on preventing Sesto from doing anything stupid from regret.
And so what of Sesto himself, Anna Stéphany, who replaced my much-anticipated Kate Lindsey? I knew she would be good, of course, because I heard her singing Xerxes recently. If someone impresses me with their Xerxes, there’s a good chance I’ll like anything they do. But I can give her Sesto no greater tribute than to say that I didn’t miss Lindsey at all once the curtain went up. Stéphany has a magnificent voice for this role, dusky and richly-textured, flowing over Mozart’s notes like dark honey. Her Parto, parto was beautifully handled, to the point that even Dehggial (whose memoirs will be subtitled: ‘Titos I have seen’) pronounced herself impressed. Deh, per questo istante solo was gorgeously nuanced, blending exhaustion, defiance and heartbreak, and given extra clout by a poignant staging. This Sesto matures almost too late: his final aria is meant as a swan-song, begging for mercy, but it also affirms his renewed appreciation of this old friendship, which he came so close to throwing away under Vitellia’s influence. For a moment, Sesto’s confused world comes into clarity, as things sometimes do when you’ve pushed yourself so hard that you’ve gone through the pain and out the other side.
Morever, Stéphany makes a superb man. I hadn’t been able to form a good idea of her acting ability from the concert-performance Xerxes, but here she blew me away. She moved like a lazy, loose-limbed young man and, thanks to a very convincing wig, her strong bone structure and the application of just enough stubble to shadow her jawline, she looked the part too. It’s rare, when looking at production photos, to do a double-take at someone because the cross-gender mimesis is so convincing. Stéphany and Prina are the only female singers who’ve elicited that response. Jake Arditti is the only man.
Richard Croft, our last-minute Tito, was as comfortable and impressive as if he’d been in rehearsals all along. In a rather dark and sombre production, he offered a bright spot of hope and decency – a good man, but not a limp or vapid one. He is engaged in a struggle against the knee-jerk cruelty of the Roman state, believing that it would be a better world if we could learn to forgive one another. Croft made the most of Tito’s monologues, especially towards the end, when he came out and appealed to the audience, making us complicit. ‘I believe the stars are conspiring to make me cruel,’ he confided with an almost playful twinkle. ‘We shall see whether the perfidy of others or my clemency will prevail‘. This warm-hearted man seems wasted on the crisp, professional types who work for him – epitomised by the quietly authoritative Publio (an excellent Clive Bayley), who controls access to the too-generous emperor. Indeed, we see Tito’s selflessness from the start, when he dismisses Berenice with an almost anguished embrace. Forbidden by Publio to follow her, Tito sags, while the dignified Berenice makes her way through a mob towards her ship. While Tito sends her away with compassion, the mob becomes increasingly more threatening, their paeans in honour of their emperor morphing into something nasty and xenophobic. Tito seems oblivious to this dark streak in his nation.
We were amused that the age gap between Sesto and Tito seemed to have widened as they grew up: Croft could easily be Stéphany’s father (though of course it would have made more sense with Davislim in the role, as was planned). But Tito’s affection for his young friend is never in doubt: he’s open, warm, tactile – embarrassingly so, it seems, for when he playfully lifts Sesto up, the younger man squirms away: for Sesto, if not for Tito, their friendship has shifted with their status. If he feels awkward with Tito, though, Sesto at least has Annio (Michèle Losier). Like Stéphany, Losier pulled off her masculinity with aplomb. She has a deep, vibrant voice which blended beautifully with Joélle Harvey’s luminous Servilia in Ah, perdona al primo affetto, which has become one of my favourite love duets. Leggy and earnest, lank-haired and self-conscious, this Annio moves between the worlds of court and wilderness, popping on his spectacles in Tito’s presence, like a summer intern trying to prove he was serious about the job.
Perched up in the gods, we had a good view down into the orchestra pit and I was able to hear how brisk and crisp the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment were, under the baton of Robin Ticciati. Our seats had a drawback though, and I’ve taken off half a star for the absurd decision to have so much of the action happen at the far right-hand side of the stage. Anyone sitting on the right of the horseshoe would have had trouble seeing, especially when the office building moved further back in Act II. My friends and I, in the ‘cheap’ £50 seats, missed half the opera’s action because it was all happening out of our eyeline. It was frustrating, especially because all three of us absolutely loved it and hungered for more, sometimes leaning dangerously far over the side in the hope of figuring out what was happening. Luckily there was a live broadcast on Thursday, and we have it on good authority that there’s going to be a DVD, which will be an absolute treat, and I urge everyone to buy it.
Despite the sight-line issue, this was a complete joy. Of course, a visit to Glyndebourne is always lovely, with the picnics, the beautiful gardens and (we were lucky) gorgeous weather. But we were blessed too with an intelligent production: I’m surprised that many of the mainstream critics didn’t like it so much, when in the past they’ve raved about much sillier designs. The cast were a dream, one and all, but Stéphany and Coote won joint shares in my heart: both of them for their stunning singing; Stéphany for her impressive mimesis of manhood; and Coote for having the sheer panache to get out there, with a neck injury, and act her socks off for three hours as if there wasn’t the slightest thing wrong. That, my friends, is a trooper. God bless her.