After a week of thinking about Tristan und Isolde –at the COC, in the Opera Exchange, at the piano and rattling around inside my head—I was ready for something different. Tristan is many things. It’s humongous, it’s conceptual & symbolic, it’s almost unsingably difficult. Its dissonant harmonies point to our century, while its dramaturgy anticipates modern film & media.
A change of pace? The COC’s other current production is Christopher Alden’s La Clemenza di Tito, originally presented at Chicago Opera Theater in 2009. While it’s not a familiar opera, I’d swooned over the Opera Atelier production in 2011 (and saw it three times), gorgeous music by Mozart that deserves to be better known. Where Tristan is an intoxicating experience that one could call Dionysian, Clemenza di Tito is an answer from the other side of the equation, namely the clear & disciplined voice of Apollo, ironic & incisive.
Again we’re watching a Canadian tenor sing and act brilliantly in a difficult role, namely Michael Schade. While Tito is not Tristan – one of the hardest roles of all—I think it’s the most difficult Mozart tenor role. Christopher Alden’s production requires a great deal of Schade, who changes over the course of the opera.
Again we’re hearing a superb performance from the COC orchestra, who seem to have hit their stride lately. I don’t know conductor Daniel Cohen’s credentials, but the reading was often as brisk as what we’d demand from a specialist in historically informed performance. I believe Cohen is a late replacement for Johannes Debus, himself a late sub for Jiří Bělohlávek (who had to cancel a few weeks ago due to illness).
Alden’s Clemenza di Tito interrogates history, problematizing the usual version by refusing to simply swallow tales that may be a bit hard to believe. Biggest example is Tito himself, a figure who may be too good to be true. I don’t want to give it all away, but for example in his first scene.
- How it’s written: Publio (who speaks for “the public”, and the Senate) speaks to Tito about tribute money from subject provinces being used to build a temple to Tito. Tito redirects those funds to relief for the victims of the recent disaster of Vesuvius.
- Alden’s take: the chorus—a sad group in quasi-modern clothing but masked—put money into Publio’s helmet, as Tito sanctimoniously speaks the same lines in front of a cynical audience of tax-payers. Does it matter that these aren’t citizens of subject provinces? No.
In other words, while Alden gives us the opera as written he’s interrogating assumptions throughout, so that we simultaneously get history AND commentary.
The cast is very strong. While I segued from Tristan via another brilliant Canadian tenor, the most interesting portrayal is Isabel Leonard as Sesto. Before we even speak of singing or acting, you can’t ignore the persuasiveness of a trouser role (woman portraying a man) where the woman’s muscles are more prominent in their definition than any of the other “men” onstage. While there’s no mistaking Leonard’s gender, her macho body language is remarkable. When you add a rich mezzo-soprano voice, you have the makings of a portrayal of astonishing depth. I couldn’t take my eyes off her.
If that weren’t enough, Wallis Giunta as Annio gives us another trouser role, contrasting Leonard with a movement vocabulary comprised of jocular poses, hiding behind nerdy glasses. Giunta’s voice, like her body language, makes a contrast to Leonard, a subtle alternative every bit as compelling in its delicacy. Giunta is such an amazing actor that she is almost unrecognizable as Annio.
The fourth excellent performance is arguably the single most important one in the whole opera. Keri Alkema’s Vitellia needs to be able to make us believe that she can make a man murder his best friend out of love for her, even as she outrageously pursues someone else. Vitellia is not an attractive human being, even though she is eventually tormented by remorse in the last part of the opera. Alkema manages all of it: the demanding high-maintenance diva, the capriciousness, sense of entitlement, and even the birth of compassion & a human heart in the latter part of her portrayal, all sung powerfully.
Rounding out the cast are solid portrayals from Mireille Asselin as Servilia and Robert Gleadow –generating lots of laughs—as Publio.
There are many moments of ironic laughter, with glimpses of something much deeper. The chief publicity photo shows Leonard painting the iconic phrase “sic semper tyrannis” (or “thus always for tyrants”) onto a wall. When we see her begin to do this during the brief insurrection in the middle of the opera, I saw that where she was beginning to paint, you could already see where the words had been written and erased before. Mistake? But no, come to think of it. The residue on the wall suggests that we have had tyrants before and will see them again.
La Clemenza di Tito runs at the Four Seasons Centre until Feb 22nd.
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