La clemenza di Tito

English National Opera

The Coliseum, 8 June 2007 4 stars

La clemenza di Tito

Once again English National Opera has assembled a stellar cast, this time for Mozart's La clemenza di Tito. There was not one weak singer on stage and several of them were outstanding.

Written in 1791 for the coronation of the Habsburg ruler Leopold II as King of Bohemia, La clemenza di Tito was Mozart's last opera. Apart from ruling on several Habsburg thrones, Leopold also held the honorary title of Holy Roman Emperor. Thus the subject of Mozart's last opera, the benevolent Roman Emperor Titus (who ruled from 79AD until his untimely death in 81AD), was appropriate for Leopold's coronation. It also offered Mozart the opportunity to compose a concise drama in the form of an opera seria. Composed in a matter of weeks near the end of his life, the beauty and humanity of his music is uplifting.

David McVicar's production focuses on the relationships of the characters without the aid of any intrusive theatrical tools. Indeed, the stage is in semi-darkness during the whole performance, thus perhaps indicating that we are watching a human drama unfold rather than a theatrical event. During the overture the stage is shown but there is no action: McVicar shows respect for Mozart's score. However, I am puzzled by two aspects of McVicar's staging. In its handful of numbers, the chorus does not appear but sings (magnificently) from the orchestra pit. They are hidden from sight and, inevitably, lose some power from their glorious singing. McVicar provides bodyguards and soldiers for Titus: these are twelve non-singing actors who move and swirl their maces according to Japanese tradition. But why?

In the title role, tenor Paul Nilon is astonishing. His voice, musicality, technical virtuosity and his understanding of the composer's style combine to make him a great Mozart tenor. In addition, Nilon's portrayal of Tito's struggle to stay good while also maintaining power is fully convincing. Even if nothing else had been good about this production, Paul Nilon's performance alone would have made it worth seeing ENO's revival.

As Vitellia, the scheming seducer/would-be murderer eventually regretting her bad ways, Emma Bell gives a virtuoso performance. The vocal range required for Vitellia's part is unusually large; occasionally Bell's top notes show some strain. Though her vibrato is tasteful, Bell uses it more often than I would wish in Mozart. Nevertheless, her interpretation - the passionate deceiver with a guilty conscience - is one to cherish.

Before the performance started, a high ENO official came to the stage to announce that Alice Coote was suffering from chest infection but had kindly agreed to sing and that she hoped we would understand. As always when such a scenario occurs, I found this announcement uncomfortable. In my opinion, if opera singers are unwell, their understudies ought to get the chance to perform. Such announcements are far too common in opera houses all over the world: they are a bit unkind to the understudies and cause audiences to worry. In the event, Alice Coote sang magnificently as Sesto during the whole evening even though her vocal part is hugely taxing. She looked and acted the part of the innocent young man, blindly in love, to perfection.

Anne Marie Gibbons, as the gentle but brave young man Annio, gave a stylish and highly enjoyable performance. She was ably supported by Sarah-Jane Davies as Annio's love interest and eventual wife, Servilia.

Sesto's Act One aria 'Parto, ma tu ben mio' ('Send me, but my beloved') is a tour de force not only for the singer but also for the clarinettist playing the obbligato part. ENO's principal clarinettist Anthony Lamb provided one of the highlights of the evening: his technical virtuosity was amazing and his many shades of dynamics were heart-warmingly beautiful. Praise is due also to Robert Ault, who played the basset-horn obbligato part in Vitellia's Act Two rondo 'Non piu di fiori' ('Garlands of flowers, withered and perished'). It was a shame that the clarinettist and basset-horn players stayed in their usual places in the orchestra pit during their important obbligato performances; surely an argument could be made for having these players nearer to the singers with whom they perform such exposed duets.

ENO Music Director Edward Gardner's full command of his forces resulted in an excellent performance. Not to be missed.

By Agnes Kory