The 1799 design for La Clemenza di Tito, reproduced in Opera North’s programme, could not afford a greater contrast to the production at Leeds Grand. Massive arches and ceremonial staircases are populated by dozens of togaed Romans. For Opera North designer Conor Murphy employs a screen, a revolve, geometric shapes and dark modern suiting relieved by startling bursts of red or white. However, the real difference is those missing Romans. General Director Richard Mantle makes the point in the programme that this is essentially an intimate opera – and that’s the way it’s played. For the ceremonial and crowd scenes the chorus sings lustily from the wings; the stage is given over to the principals and their relationships and moral dilemmas.
Mozart’s opera seria is more human than might be expected, with formal arias less common than the interplay of small-scale ensembles. This is all enhanced by the intense focus on the six characters in John Fulljames’ intelligent production, though I wouldn’t have complained about the odd bit of spectacle!
Tito, Emperor of Rome, is a model of moderation, mercy and trust: Emperor Leopold II was either being flattered or advised! Vitellia, daughter of the late emperor, believes she should sit on the throne, at least as imperial consort, and her envy drives her to persuade her lover Sesto to kill the Emperor. Sesto’s sister Servilia, her lover Annio and Publio, the Praetorian Prefect, provide a noble commentary as the moral decisions multiply.
Opera North has assembled an international cast of consistent excellence. Paul Nilon (Tito) is a past-master at conveying goodness under moral pressure, both in his body language and in his nuanced singing. Dutch soprano Annemarie Kremer relishes the evil in Vitellia, colours her vocal line menacingly, but stops well short of scenery-chewing melodrama and is vocally and dramatically at her most impressive in confronting her own evil. However, the most memorable performances come in the two trouser parts. Estonian mezzo Helen Lepalaan (Sesto) makes a huge impression on her Opera North debut, with her voice evenly produced and immaculately controlled, her acting powerfully understated. Eighteen months after leaving college, Kathryn Rudge (Annio) is already marked out for a major career and here she delivers an astonishingly natural performance, her singing equally direct and free of mannerisms. Fflur Wyn (Servilia) and Henry Waddington (Publio), firm favourites at Opera North, do not disappoint in the less agonised parts.
Douglas Boyd conducts a precise and splendidly detailed performance, if with the occasional loss of pace and tension. It’s no surprise that, as an oboist of repute, he gets the most out of Mozart’s exquisite writing for woodwind, with Colin Honour’s superb playing of the clarinet and basset horn accompaniments written for Anton Stadler earning him the rare accolade of a curtain call!
La Clemenza di Tito runs at the Leeds Grand Theatre until 22 February. For further information visit www.operanorth.co.uk