English Touring Opera at Snape Concert Hall (and touring)

Not everybody seemed to have warmed up ahead of Act One, and there were some wobbly moments from key singers during the first hour of this gloomy staging of Mozart’s late opera seria. Perhaps one or two cast members had lingered too late amid the evening splendour of the marshlands around the Maltings – who knows? For whatever reason, in the performance I caught at Snape midway through English Touring Opera’s current tour, some of the principals only hit their stride in Act Two. No such criticism can be levelled the production’s trio of star turns: the outstanding ETO Orchestra who play so radiantly under Richard Lewis, the dynamic and vocally thrilling onstage chorus, and Mark Wilde.

La Clemenza di Tito’s celebration of goodness disproves the old adage that the Devil has the best tunes; at ETO he doesn’t even have the best singers. The gods, on the other hand, have the heroic Tito (‘Titus’ in Andrew Porter’s fine translation), and Mozart has Wilde, a tenor whose performance has a truth and vitality altogether missing elsewhere. Titus is a character without fault but beset by doubt and indecision, traits that Wilde portrays with subtlety, vulnerability and superb musicality. When he is onstage this penny-plain production becomes the full shilling.

The newly-crowned Emperor Titus needs a bride, and the scheming Vitellia (Gillian Ramm) is up for the job… but alas, then as now, the course of true love never runs smooth where royals are concerned. Vitellia enlists Titus’s right-hand man, Sextus (Julia Riley in a travesty role) and relies on his doe-eyed infatuation with her to send him off on a wicked and ultimately self-defeating act of treachery. Will our villains be caught? Will they be condemned? The clue is in the title.

Rhona McKail is a fine Mozartian soprano and an exciting prospect for the future. Underused as Servilia, one of Titus’s nearly-brides, she excels in her second-act lament for her apparently doomed former lover, Sextus. As for the remaining soloists, they spend much of the evening lurking in shadows looking as glum as the set.

Director James Conway likes a dim stage, if his recent productions are anything to go by, and this drab affair is murkier than most. The designs by Neil Irish are nondescript except for the fragment of a giant statue that rises, rotates and shatters to little purpose; and although Guy Hoare throws some attractive lighting effects onto the plain rear wall, two and a half hours of solid chiaroscuro grows hard the eyes. Only during the final chorus does Conway shed a brighter light on this modern-dress ancient Rome, and we seize gratefully upon his clemency.

- Mark Valencia