Mozart knew what he was doing

Mozart

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Yes I made a joke on my facebook status about the relevance of Mozart’s opera La Clemenza di Tito to anyone in a country uneasy about their government’s authoritarian tendencies, an ironic reference to Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove; Mozart’s opera might be subtitled “How I stopped worrying about tyranny and learned to love my Emperor”.  But it was more than a facetious attempt to make this opera topical.

Tito has had an image problem for a long time, an oddball in Mozart’s output.  Most great opera composers learn their craft gradually, finally hitting their stride with their final works; and so it is too with Mozart, except for the conspicuous exception of Tito The other operas produced in Mozart’s final years –The Magic Flute, and the three daPonte operas, Cosi fan Tutte, Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro—are among the most popular operas of all.

Is Tito a lesser work; or have we simply misunderstood the opera all this time?  If ever an opera cried out for a rethinking via a historically informed approach it’s Tito.

Why hasn’t Tito achieved a comparable level of popularity to those other masterpieces?  Of course maybe it simply isn’t a masterpiece, just a hurried job by Mozart. but I don’t agree with this view.  More likely we didn’t understand how to approach the genre of opera seria (literally serious opera) in the right way; notice, though that I said “didn’t” because I have reason to be hopeful after what I saw tonight.

After Opera Atelier’s dress rehearsal, I am eager to get back for the opening Friday, when I will be thrilled to see it again.  There are several things about this production that contribute to its success.

First, there’s the problem of vocal types one chooses to employ.  The main characters can be done several ways:

  • TITO : tenor
  • SESTO: male soprano or counter-tenor or female soprano or mezzo-soprano
  • VITELLIA: soprano
  • ANNIO: soprano or mezzo–soprano
  • SERVILIA: soprano or mezzo-soprano
  • PUBLIO: bass

The same issue comes up in other well-known operas; the first one that pops into my head is Orfeo ed Euridice, where Orfeo is sometimes played by a woman to make the voice sound right, sometimes by a man to make the gender look right.  Opera Atelier’s choice to use Michael Maniaci (a male soprano) removes the convolutions imposed by attempts to modernize.

Second, there’s the simple matter of scale.  In a big opera house with a big modern orchestra, Tito quickly devolves into a scream-fest without subtlety.  Tonight we had

  • the charming sound of Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra
  • the Elgin Theatre, seating about 1500
  • Conductor David Fallis who believes in holding an orchestra properly in check so that you can easily hear the singers, even when they’re marking (as we heard at times tonight)
David Fallis

Conductor David Fallis

Third, there’s the rather difficult matter of drama.  Director Marshall Pynkoski and Fallis share credit for this (as well as the cast of course).  I had a bit of a revelation watching the recitatives tonight.  In most productions –especially opera seria—the recit is understood as connective tissue.  The singers tend to look past them to the aria or ensemble that follows, and the conductor doesn’t usually respect the rudimentary music contained in recit.  But Pynkoski and Fallis seem to get that the drama doesn’t stop just because the aria is over.  In fact some of the recitatives were so exciting –as moments of high drama between the principals—that they generated applause: the first time I have ever seen that kind of electricity sustained between numbers.

Above & beyond Opera Atelier’s usual beautiful bodies and Tafelmusik’s lovely sound, there’s the matter of the singers and their chemistry.

As with Mozart’s earlier opera seria Idomeneo, we meet most of the principals before encountering the title role, sung by a tenor.

Measha Brueggergosman

Soprano Measha Brueggergosman

There’s Vitellia, a classic scenery-chewing diva mad with jealousy, fearlessly played by Measha Brueggergosman.  We had the emotional blackmail, the bullying, the physicality (whether slapping or seducing), and the melodramatic facial expressions.  I loved her singing, especially her tendency to turn coloratura into something resembling a seductive jazz, toying with an entire theatre full of people hanging on her every note.  There’s no denying the star power, and also the ample voice she offered in a dress rehearsal complete with lots of high notes.  Whenever Measha was on stage she commanded our attention, whether her presence matters to that scene or not.  Her flamboyance is a necessary starting point.

Sesto is the pivotal player in the opera, the man so eager to please Vitellia that he’d kill his best friend, and in the process depose a king who is almost too good to be true.  If you can’t believe this dynamic – of a man pushed around by the irresistible female, driven to betrayal of all that he believes in—you may as well pack it in.  Michael Maniaci may have been holding some voice in reserve for opening night, but sounded at least alright, and sometimes quite wonderful.  The main thing was the passion of his portrayal, both in his relationship to Vitellia as well as with Tito.  I found that I genuinely cared about Sesto & Tito.  The tone between Maniaci & Brueggergosman sometimes edged towards comedy, in recognition that the key relationship of the opera is really the one between the two men.  There’s  a hint of a homo-erotic subtext in the ideal love between these two men; but i felt that the scenes between the two were quite beautiful, and showed restraint.

We also meet Mireille Lebel as Annio and Mireille Asselin as Servilia, counter-balancing all the anguish and melodrama of the chief love-triangle of the opera, showing us something genuinely sweet & worthwhile.

Spicer

Tenor Kresimir Spicer

Finally, the City of Rome welcomed Tito: and Kresimir Spicer stepped onto the stage.  While that scene seemed to play on the level of civic duty and right behaviour (Tito rejecting the generous gifts of his citizens, suggesting they use them instead to help the homeless victims of the Vesuvius eruption rather than himself), Spicer played the scene with his recent heartbreak as subtext.  Spicer brought a genuine sense of seriousness to the proceedings, the rock at the centre of this production; he was tightly wound, explosive but contained.

I found myself thinking afterwards that maybe we need to rediscover or reinvent opera seria, to find its truth for ourselves.  Opera Atelier’s La Clemenza di Tito looked and sounded wonderful, a taut piece of music theatre, and a display of many different sorts of beauty.  There was no concept overlaid onto the production, just a tight-knit group of performers trusting the excellence of the score, relying upon one another in a textbook example of ensemble musicianship.

In case anyone was in doubt, I feel they’ve confirmed that Mozart knew what he was doing.

Opera Atelier’s production of La Clemenza di Tito at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto opens Friday April 22nd, running until May 1st.

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