La clemenza di Tito; Prom 16 review – dark deeds in a Roman quagmire

Gyndebourne, Lewes; Royal Albert Hall, London
Musical brilliance saves Mozart from a watery Glyndebourne grave. Plus an evocative Julian Anderson premiere

Swamps are treacherous places – ask Donald Trump, so keen to drain the one he believes festers at the heart of Washington DC. And in the vision of director Claus Guth and designer Christian Schmidt, ancient Rome had another, seething with intrigue and feverish with divided loyalty. And also just plain difficult to get around.

Making their Glyndebourne debuts in a new production of Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito, Guth and Schmidt found just how difficult their set was to negotiate when they and the rest of the production team tripped and stumbled through its thickets of reeds at their curtain call on opening night. There was a certain schadenfreude here.

Placing the action in a sort of modern day, the splendour of ancient Rome is reduced to a tedious office block with handy swamp in the car park below – a split-level set where the high-minded, magnanimous Tito rules above and those who plot his downfall lurk beneath. All fine in principle, but in reality absurdly awkward for the splendid cast, who struggle through swaths of reeds, teeter around rocks and sometimes almost disappear from view.

The production’s admirable intention to show that mercy can be as powerful a policy as meeting violence with violence is fatally undermined by dressing this philosophy in the dreariest of colours: most of the characters and chorus wear dark, drab suits and the set is all gloomy greys and blacks, the only colour provided by those pesky reeds.

Richard Croft (Tito) above the valiant Glyndebourne chorus, lost among the reeds in La clemenza di Tito:
Richard Croft (Tito) above the valiant Glyndebourne chorus, lost among the reeds in La clemenza di Tito: Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Observer

Opening night did not have an auspicious start. The plot revolves around the lifelong friendship between Emperor Tito and Sesto, a man who faces the worst of dilemmas: he must kill his best friend, Tito, for the woman he loves. Video of them as small boys, the best of buddies, romping through the grounds of Glyndebourne, all catapults and short trousers, spluttered and then collapsed during the overture. It was revived later, though its symbolism seemed so heavy-handed and superfluous it might have been better not to have bothered.

Thank goodness for the music. Conductor Robin Ticciati, a brilliant cast and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment more than made up for the production’s shortcomings. And all this after some major recent cast changes.

The tenor Steve Davislim, the intended Tito, left the production just over two weeks ago, citing artistic differences. He was replaced by an inspired choice, the American Richard Croft. His sweet-toned, lyrical Tito is permanently racked by doubt but determined to be a just ruler, even though pushed to the limit by the manipulative Publio (the rock-solid Clive Bayley). Anna Stéphany, who was originally cast as Annio, stepped up to the other trouser role of Sesto when the pregnant Kate Lindsey left the cast. Her place as Annio was taken by Canadian mezzo Michèle Losier.

Stéphany proved the sensation of the night, singing with a thrilling edge and admirable dexterity. Losier, too, won deserved audience acclaim for her performance, but for me the moment to treasure was Alice Coote’s rendition of Vitellia’s aria Non più di fiori, when this vaultingly ambitious character realises she must confess to Tito that she was behind the plot to kill him. The house lights came up at this point, so that the audience became the people to whom she pleads. This aria also features a rare treat – a chance to hear the basset horn, its woody obbligato burbling beautifully in the hands of the OAE’s principal clarinetist, Antony Pay.

Composer Julian Anderson, left, takes a bow with pianist Steven Osborne at Prom 16.
Composer Julian Anderson, left, and pianist Steven Osborne take a bow after the world premiere of Anderson’s The Imaginary Museum. Photograph: Chris Christodoulou

On the same night, the world premiere of Julian Anderson’s piano concerto The Imaginary Museum featured in Prom 16, played by its dedicatee, Steven Osborne, with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Ilan Volkov. Listening next day on iPlayer, I was immediately struck by the unique sound world that Anderson coaxes from the orchestra. Often delicate, light and feathery, transparent and ethereal, his Museum gathers and displays the acoustic properties of places: deep wells, the sea, forests, even the Australian desert and the songs of its birdlife (sampled on an electronic keyboard tuned a quarter-tone below the orchestra). It’s a hugely imaginative, beautiful piece which culminates in a glorious evocation of the grandeur of mountains and the setting sun. Catch it on iPlayer while you can. It’s a delicious treat.

Star ratings (out of 5)
La clemenza di Tito ★★★
Prom 16 ★★★★★

La clemenza di Tito continues in rep at Glyndebourne until 26 August and will be screened live in cinemas nationwide on Thursday 3 August


Stephen Pritchard

The GuardianTramp

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