Introspection & Immediacy: La Clemenza di Tito at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées

Mozart – La Clemenza di Tito

Tito – Kurt Streit

Sesto – Kate Lindsey

Vitellia – Karina Gauvin

Annio – Julie Boulianne

Servilia – Julie Fuchs

Publio – Robert Gleadow

Ensemble vocal Aedes, Le Cercle de l’Harmonie / Jérémie Rhorer

Stage director – Denis Podalydès

Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris.  Sunday, December 14th, 2014.

At a time when so many theatres are playing safe with wall-to-wall revivals of the usual classics, the opportunity to see a Clemenza di Tito with an exciting cast, a fine period instrument orchestra and a young conductor who has already established his Mozartian credentials really was not one to be overlooked.  Clemenza is a marvellous work – the hauntingly introspective arias, virtuosic vocal writing and those glorious choruses make for a wonderful evening in the theatre, and so it proved to be tonight.

Kurt Streit, Kate Lindsey & Robert Gleadow © Vincent Pontet
Kurt Streit, Kate Lindsey & Robert Gleadow © Vincent Pontet

Denis Podalydès chose to start the evening with an actress reciting a passage from Act V of Racine’s Bérénice.  I imagine the idea was to offer an insight into the back-story behind the opera.  Yet it fell flat because it took attention away from that magnificent overture.  The rhythm of the text, beautifully spoken by Leslie Menu, was at odds with the way the music opens.  As a result, the impact of that striking opening was lost.  Despite that, it was an intelligent and fluent staging.  Personenregie was detailed and logical and there was a real chemical interaction between the characters, particularly between Karina Gauvin’s Vitellia and Kate Lindsey’s Sesto.  The action seemingly took place in a hotel in the 1930s and costumes (Christian Lacroix) reflected that period with suits for the male characters and elegant dresses for the ladies.  The idea of a state on the brink of crisis was an interesting one and the constant presence of actors and their actions and reactions to the events of the opera reminded us that none of these events took place in a vacuum.  It was always respectful to the work if perhaps not offering much in the way of new insights.

Company © Vincent Pontet
Ensemble © Vincent Pontet

Musically it was a highly admirable evening.  Kurt Streit’s Tito was an interesting one.  All the notes were there and his high, open tenor was even throughout the range.  And yet, he had a tendency to oversing with predictable consequences for pitch – this was particularly noticeable in ‘se all’impero, amici Dei’ where coming out of the runs, he pushed the voice so that it lost steadiness.  The tone was bright and penetrating and he portrayed the uptight leader well.  It wasn’t perhaps the most elegant Mozart singing I’ve ever heard but it was always genuine.

Kurt Streit & Kate Lindsey © Vincent Pontet
Kurt Streit & Kate Lindsey © Vincent Pontet

Kate Lindsey’s Sesto revealed a well-schooled mezzo that has a real sheen.  The voice has a bright, red wine tone that carries well and was always used musically.  Yet, I felt initially that there was a limited range of tone colours despite her striking use of dynamics.  It felt technically impeccable while perhaps not quite penetrating the soul of the character.  Then in Act 2, she sang her aria ‘deh per questo istante solo’ and suddenly something happened.  At that very moment she became Sesto and the performance immediately moved into a different dimension.  The line flowed effortlessly, she phrased it beautifully and used dynamics to shade the music and the text in the most wonderful way.

Kate Lindsey, Karina Gauvin © Vincent Pontet
Kate Lindsey, Karina Gauvin © Vincent Pontet

Gauvin’s Vitellia dominated the stage whenever she appeared.  She tore up the scenery in the most magnificent way, projecting such a magnetic character that it was completely understandable why Sesto would murder for her.  Her voice is another of those very rare instruments, one that is immediately recognizable.  There was also that wonderful sense of hearing an artist you have always wanted to sing the role, singing it.  Vocally there was much to admire – those tricky passages at ‘vengo…aspettate…’ towards the end of Act 1 were tackled with aplomb and she nailed the high D with ease.  It does sound that she perhaps needs some more time to work the role into the voice – the range is enormous and it’s a big sing – and there were a few gear changes that were perhaps too evident.  Then she gave us a ‘non più di fiori’ of such exquisite, unbearably moving beauty that it was quite simply unforgettable.  She found the core of that aria in a way I have never heard it sung before.  That wonderful alchemy between music and text that is a trademark of the very finest singers was most certainly there.  I very much hope that she will return to the role.

Julie Fuchs & Julie Boulianne © Vincent Pontet
Julie Fuchs & Julie Boulianne © Vincent Pontet

Julie Boulianne’s highly musical mezzo was a real asset to the cast as Annio. The voice has a warm, honeyed-tone that is beguiling to listen to.  She also phrased her music beautifully.  Julie Fuchs brought her delightfully liquid soprano to the role of Servilia.  It’s a bright and clear sound that seems ideally suited to this music.  As Publio, Robert Gleadow’s rich bass-baritone made a real impact.  The firmness of the voice and ease of production a pleasure to listen to.

Julie Boulianne & Kate Lindsey © Vincent Pontet
Julie Boulianne & Kate Lindsey © Vincent Pontet

The chorus was nicely balanced with good blend and easy amplitude – a real pleasure to hear such a firm-toned ensemble.  The orchestra gave us playing of the very highest quality – intonation was trouble free and the sound world was ravishing to listen to.  Jérémie Rhorer’s conducting was highly effective.  There were a few passages where he pushed forward a little too much but nothing that disturbed unnecessarily.  The way the orchestra and chorus opened up at ‘che del ciel, che degli Dei’ was magnificent.  Nicola Boud’s basset horn playing was exquisite.  It was a real privilege to hear Mozart’s score played so well with the marvellous sonorities of this terrific group of players.  Ornamentation was inconsistent but when it was used, it made a real difference.

Company © Vincent Pontet
Ensemble © Vincent Pontet

This was an evening that promised much and by the end it certainly felt that it had delivered.  There was some glorious singing from a highly talented cast and fantastic playing from an orchestra on tremendous form.  Yet despite the big choral scenes and interactions between the characters, it was the stillness and introspection that stays in the mind.  The exquisitely-sung ‘deh per questo istante solo’ is one but also Gauvin’s glorious, genuine ‘non più di fiori’ sung with such real immediacy that it is worth the price of the ticket alone.  The show will be well worth seeing when it is streamed on the theatre’s website on December 18th.

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