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
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.