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Roman triumph

02/05/2005 -  and 9, 11, 14, 17, 19, 24, 26 February, 4, 8 March 2005
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: La Clemenza di Tito
Paul Nilon (Tito), Emma Bell (Vitellia), Sally Matthews (Servilia), Sarah Connolly (Sesto), Stephanie Marshall (Annio), Neal Davies (Publio)

Roland Böer (conductor), David McVicar (director)

ENO Chorus and Orchestra

Some people aren't sure whether La Clemenza di Tito is any good. It was commissioned by restive aristocrats for the coronation in Prague in 1791 of Leopold II of Bohemia, and its libretto, adapted by Lorenzo Da Ponte's friend Caterino Mazzolà from one of Metastasio's, makes the unsubtle point that a ruler shouldn't alienate his friends and should watch his back. Many feel that Mozart's operas are only as good as their librettists and that the musical drama of La Clemenza di Tito is nowhere as sophisticated as that of the Da Ponte operas; on the other hand, there are no singers' show-pieces as there are in Mozart's early court works like Mitridate and Idomeneo. But the opera is, at least, coherent in action and emotion -- in spite of a superficial resemblance to Boris Godunov in its depiction of monarchy on the verge of tyranny -- and there are old-fashioned da capo arias that are almost Handelian in their expressiveness and intensity.

David McVicar's production acknowledges the Roman setting by replacing the people (the chorus, who sing from the pit) with a sinister praetorian guard who seem to represent the impulse to Stalinist pseudo-legalism that covers arbitrariness. McVicar and the designer Yannis Thavoris otherwise concentrate more on the abstractions of power, formal gestures and louring walls, and McVicar succeeds in making the emotions of the individuals involved into the substance of the drama. The overall effect is, strikingly, romantic rather than classical, something like Bellini or Rossini's historical dramas without the fioritura.

A fine cast, most of them with track records in Handel opera, sang beautifully, although not every voice would necessarily to be every canary fancier's taste. Sarah Connolly was vocally heroic and visually Byronic as Sesto, the tormented friend of the emperor who, besotted with the deranged Vitellia, leads a revolt against him. Emma Bell was terrifying as Vitellia, perhaps the first role that has given her the chance to let rip with passion. Sally Matthews as Servilia, Sesto's sister, sounded in much better voice than last summer at Glyndebourne. Stephanie Marshall was a touch hard edged as Annio, Sesto's buddy, but she and Matthews were a sweet pair of ingénue lovers.

Paul Nilon as Tito looked miserable throughout, understandably with Neal Davies' heavy Publio and his insect-like praetorian guard threatening him all the time. For this Tito, the final act of clemency, forgiving Sesto for his rebellion and Vitellia for inciting it, was the result of a process that was visible throughout the course of the opera. Nilon's voice is distinctive, and his singing was superb.

Roland Böer, in his first impressive appearance at the ENO, directed the orchestra in a performance that made a full case for the dramatic power and overall musical quality of the opera. The audience overcame any expectations of marginal Mozart and was as enthusiastic as any since the ENO reopened.

HE Elsom



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