Let’s say you’re a devoted fan of a particular art form, such as Shakespeare’s plays, Fellini’s films or Gaugin’s paintings. Then imagine that suddenly someone discovers a masterpiece by your favourite. Can you imagine the joy to suddenly encounter a new work from your hero (Shakespeare, Fellini, Gaugin), in their prime?
That’s how i feel. I had heard La Clemenza di Tito before. The production I’ve experienced this week in Toronto from Opera Atelier is like a revelation. A combination of a long rehearsal period, a scholarly approach to staging & music, the use of historically informed performance & instruments, have all stripped away the dust, revealing the masterpiece within.
The cast of six are strong both musically and dramatically. The complex triangle between Sesto, Tito & Vitellia have a special chemistry.
Measha Brueggergosman’s Vitellia has the crazy seductiveness to start with. Can you say “high maintenance?” She demands that her admirer Sesto–who’s not yet her lover–should avenge her for being rejected by Tito, who is Caesar after all. Vitellia can’t seem to make up her mind however:
- when rejected she wants Sesto to kill Tito
- but when Tito is single again, suddenly Vitellia wants Tito again, and demands that Sesto hold back his avenging rage: while observing her interest in the Emperor
Brueggergosman has the seductive chutzpah of a Carmen (including several remarkably improvisatory moments, in her a piacere reading of passages in “Deh se piacer mi vuoi,” her Act I aria) , blatantly demanding of her man and without any shame: at least until Sesto is tried and convicted of attempting to kill Tito. Even then her primary concern is that Sesto will spill the beans on her part in the plot, while her concern for Sesto’s life is an afterthought.
Michael Maniaci? he understands the chemistry. He is practically begging, totally dominated by this woman. The part was written for castrato, which means that it’s often performed by a woman, whereas Maniaci –a male soprano– gives us both the authentic sounding vocal type AND the right gender. Seeing the way Maniaci is pushed (and occasionally slapped) around by Brueggergosman’s Vitellia, it makes exquisite sense that their voices blend so perfectly. While Maniaci is not a castrato, the subtext is there with Brueggergosman pushing the envelope as if Vitellia could be a dominatrix. Musically and dramatically these two have an amazing rapport.
Kresimir Spicer plays the third member of the trio, namely Tito, Emperor of Rome. I was very impressed by his accuracy marking (singing with only half voice) his big aria at the dress rehearsal two nights ago. Tonight the same accuracy was there, plus ample heft when he wanted it. When I think about why this opera is not more popular, i wonder if it’s limited by the availability of tenors who can actually sing Tito, a role calling for agility as well as more high notes than one usually encounters in a Mozart opera. Spicer sang with wonderful pitch, lovely clarity in his coloratura, and a remarkable dynamic range. At the same time that he faces the toughest singing of any cast member (in my opinion), Spicer was the rock holding the opera together with his passionate acting.
- The other female character –Servilia– was played by Mireille Asselin, the virtuous foil to nasty Vitellia. Where the main trio are caught up in conspiracy, Servilia radiates goodness, particularly in Asselin’s reading.
Her virtuous partner is Annio, a man played by a woman. Not only did Mireille Lebel bring flawless intonation & phrasing to her portrayal, but she helped decode some of the gender ambiguity in the simplest way: by being so tall. Where some trouser parts are feebly enacted, Lebel’s stature and playfully aggressive body language gave a curious balance to Maniaci’s Sesto, in their jocular horseplay, or the way she towered over Asselin in their love duet, “Ah, perdona al primo affetto.”
My facebook friends already know I’m crazed for this tune, having posted two different versions today (when a melody is this good, i don’t mind if i can’t get it out of my head):
Popp with von Stade
Ivanova with Garanca
And finally, there’s Curtis Sullivan, a stalwart with Opera Atelier, as Publio. This role is a bit of a challenge, because Publio is a complete abstraction without much clear subtext. Sullivan played him with strength, barking at Tito a couple of times, otherwise a confidant or witness.
I observed –in my review of the dress-rehearsal— that Fallis & Pynkoski have a revolutionary approach to the recitatives. It shouldn’t be such a radical idea, but it is: that there’s not a second of this reading that lets down in intensity. It’s thoroughly well-thought out, so that the relationships cohere perfectly, the love triangle balancing the virtuous duo, and all the singing-actors bringing their whole person to every note & word.
The sets & costumes by Gerard Gauci reinforce a period feel, by conjuring a curious mix of old & new; this is the Roman Empire dressed in the fashions of the Enlightment.
It all adds up to a spectacular new look at an opera that deserves to be in the standard repertoire. Perhaps if more companies emulated the care lavished by director Marshall Pynkoski and conductor David Fallis, they might have similar breakthroughs of their own.
How fortunate for Torontonians that we get to see/hear them.
Opera Atelier’s production of La Clemenza di Tito continues at the Elgin Theatre until May 1st.