Intelligent, commanding and penetrating: La Clemenza di Tito at the Wiener Staatsoper

Mozart – La Clemenza di Tito

Tito – Benjamin Bruns
Sesto – Margarita Gritskova
Vitellia – Caroline Wenborne
Annio – Miriam Albano
Servilia – Hila Fahima
Publio – Manuel Walser

Chor der Wiener Staatsoper, Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper / Ádám Fischer
Stage Director – Jürgen Flimm.

Wiener Staatsoper, Vienna, Austria.  Tuesday, March 28th, 2016.

There is something very special about hearing Mozart’s music in Vienna, the city in which he produced so much of his music.  Something special also in the sound of the Viennese strings and winds, and the Wiener Staatsoper is a house with a very proud Mozart tradition.  Every member of tonight’s cast was singing their role for the first time at the house and this cast of young and upcoming talents certainly promised much.  Not only did they promise but they also most certainly delivered.

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Benjamin Bruns © Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn

Jürgen Flimm’s staging was premiered back in 2012.  It created an interesting framework for the action and really managed to penetrate into the heart of the story.  There were interesting hints of Tito’s authoritarianism – the chorus would enter to sing his praises dressed in black and singing from music stands – while those uprising, dressed in more colourful clothing, were seen at the end of Act 1 leading some of the chorus off by gunpoint.  The sets (George Tsypin) were made of simple panels that were able to create new rooms as appropriate.  We were definitely made aware of the very public nature of the society in which the characters operated; as Vitellia and Sesto plotted, they did so with the door open with supernumeraries close by drinking at a bar.   Where the staging also succeeded was in making Tito much more of a rounded character than we often see.  His journey of anger to forgiveness to a realization that respect needs to be earned was fully mapped by Benjamin Bruns.  Flimm really succeeded in creating fully rounded characters and the production had clearly been revived with great care and respect for the original regie.  As the curtain descended at the end we were left with a sense that Tito showed clemency to Sesto and Vitellia because he felt that he had no choice not to do so, and that things could never be the same again for any of the characters with Sesto seemingly seeking release through suicide.  Other than a spot of gratuitous furniture abuse this was a very insightful and intelligent production.

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Miriam Albano, Margarita Gritskova, Benjamin Bruns © Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn

Musically this was an evening that genuinely lived.  Ádám Fischer led a reading where he had achieved a unanimity of approach throughout the entire cast through tasteful ornamentation, recitatives that crackled with energy, tempi that were engagingly swift and vital, and an intelligent and imaginative use of dynamics.  It really felt that the piece was being created right there and then before us as soon as that arresting overture jumping into life.  There were a few isolated moments where stage and pit drifted apart momentarily but these were very few.  The orchestra played extremely well – intonation was faultless and the distinctive tone of that unique band was more than evident.  The chorus was placed sadly too far upstage to make too much of an impact but they sang with good blend and tight ensemble.

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Benjamin Bruns © Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn

Benjamin Bruns was a very satisfying Tito.  He sang with a deeply elegant line, total command of the passaggio and genuine beauty of tone.  His opening number ‘del più sublime soglio’ exemplified that approach.  When he got to ‘se all’impero’ he sailed through the florid writing but also ideally portrayed the introspection needed for the middle section.  Caroline Wenborne replaced the originally announced Véronique Gens as Vitellia.  Wenborne’s is a bigger voice than we often hear in this music.  It’s an impressive instrument with the high D holding no terrors and an impressive lower register.  She is also a commanding actress holding the stage whenever she appears and portraying a completely magnetic character.  The voice seems to have a relatively limited palette of tone colours, her Italian is somewhat Anglophone, and the more florid passagework had a tendency to be breathy and aspirated.  She did give us a ‘non più di fiori’ of undisputable feeling and I would certainly like to hear her as Elettra one day, a role I’m sure that would fit her temperament very well.

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Caroline Wenborne © Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn

Margarita Gritskova was a livewire and highly intense Sesto.  She used the ornamentation to really showcase her impressive instrument from the full bottom to the plum-toned middle to the bright and penetrating top.  She is still in her twenties and I have a feeling that this is a voice that is going to continue growing.  Hers was a highly schooled and musical account of the role, the interplay with the almost improvisatory basset horn in ‘parto, parto’ was absolutely magical and the triplets absolutely spot on.  I might have preferred a little more introspection in ‘deh per questo istante solo’ but she really did deploy a notable range of tone colours during the course of the aria.

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Margarita Gritskova © Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn

Miriam Albano’s Annio was also nicely schooled and musically sung in a compact mezzo with a bright tone and an easy line.  Hila Fahima’s Servilia was sung with real personality, the voice with a distinctive and attractive timbre and a smile to the voice that was absolutely beguiling.  I was particularly impressed by Manuel Walser’s Publio, a character who often gets forgotten but who here was a very strong presence in the ensembles.  There was an Italianate warmth to his sound and a handsome tone that I found particularly captivating.  He has that implicit sense of being able to unite text and music that suggests he could have a major career.  Indeed, I would certainly like to hear him sing some of the bigger Mozart parts in the future.

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Miriam Albano, Hila Fahima © Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn

This was an evening that really showcased the Wiener Staatsoper at its very best.  It had been prepared impeccably both dramatically and musically with a unanimity of approach that really helped to bring the music to life.  Indeed, it really felt that the piece was being created right there and then for us.  It was performed in an intelligent staging that successfully illuminated the work, the society which it portrayed and the conflict within the individual characters.  This was a vital and engaging evening of music theatre, one that certainly did credit to the proud Mozart tradition of the house on the Ring.

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