La Clemenza di Tito – review

Hackney Empire, London

Mozart's final opera was commissioned to celebrate the coronation of Leopold II as King of Bohemia in 1791. This has helped condemn it as cold, rather than the living drama one expects of its composer. Yet a sympathetic staging can silence doubts.

Its original location is ancient Rome, where the Emperor Titus sets an example for Enlightenment rulers to follow in his selfless magnanimity, and specifically by forgiving those who have attempted his assassination. James Conway's production for English Touring Opera transfers the action to the realpolitik of a militaristic state around 1930, where, sadly, Titus's limitless clemency seems even less likely than in the artificial context of idealised classicism. At any rate, Mark Wilde's nerdy Emperor comes over as a wimp rather than a role model.

It's a shame, because much of Conway's direction is skilful, and his cast respond keenly. Each of the central roles – Titus, his treacherous friend Sesto, and Sesto's lover Vitellia, daughter of the deposed Emperor, who wants revenge for Titus spurning her – demands serious vocal accomplishment. As with Wilde, neither Gillian Ramm's Vitellia nor Julia Riley's Sesto entirely pulls it off, but both manage a more than presentable shot, with Ramm's soprano firing bold top-note volleys that match her would-be trophy wife attitude and power-dressing.

Rhona McKail (Servilia), Charlotte Stephenson (Annio) and Philip Spendley (Publio) all flesh out their roles with assurance. But the evening's chief delight lies in the orchestral playing, which, under conductor Richard Lewis, offers energy and attack, revealing the outstanding quality of a still relatively little-known score.

Contributor

George Hall

The GuardianTramp

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