Image and sense of place: La Clemenza di Tito at the Teatro Real Madrid

Mozart – La Clemenza di Tito

Tito – Jeremy Ovenden
Sesto – Monica Bacelli
Vitellia – Karina Gauvin
Annio – Sophie Harmsen
Servilia – Sylvia Schwartz
Publio – Guido Loconsolo

Coro Titular del Teatro Real, Orquesta Titular del Teatro Real / Christophe Rousset
Stage Director – Ursel & Karl-Ernst Herrmann.

Teatro Real, Madrid, Spain.  Saturday, November 19th, 2016.

Tonight’s Clemenza di Tito was a revival of Ursel and Karl-Ernst Herrmann’s 1982 staging, originally conceived for De Munt in Brussels and tonight given in memory of the late Gerard Mortier who served as artistic director in both houses.  It was rebuilt especially for the Teatro Real.  In viewing I felt it had much in common with the recent Vienna Armide – both seemed to prioritize visuals over dramatic development.  Here, I felt we had little sense of place – it was hard to tell who the characters were nor indeed where we were.  The exception was Karina Gauvin’s Vitellia, who was clearly a dominating figure able to get everyone to do her bidding.  Otherwise, there seemed to me to be a distinct lack of chemistry between the other characters and as a result it felt hard to care about them especially given that it was seemed hard to know who they were.

The set (by Karl-Ernst Herrmann) was a white box in which doors would open and reveal vistas beyond such as classical columns or the burning Capitol at the end of Act 1.  I must admit to being somewhat baffled by some of the imagery however – why did Servilia first enter sailing in on a gondola for example?  It looked good, and certainly my seat-mate was enamoured with it, but I felt the production as a whole severely lacking in dramatic propulsion.  This was not helped by Christophe Rousset’s conducting which emphasized languor in some of the slower numbers with a crucial lack of pulse.  Furthermore, the action had to be repeatedly held up for stage business – moving furniture for example – with the result that Rousset had to keep inserting extra pauses into the recitatives resulting in an even greater loss of a sense of the drama being pushed to its inevitable conclusion.

Sylvia Schwartz & Monica Bacelli.  Photo: © Javier del Real
Sylvia Schwartz & Monica Bacelli. Photo: © Javier del Real

There was however a lot that was good musically.  The band sounded excellent – the natural brass and timpani being struck with hard sticks made a splendid noise in the grand, brassy music.  The strings, playing with minimal vibrato also sounded good apart from a few moments of sour intonation, inevitable perhaps on a first night.  The house chorus sang with good amplitude and tuning even if the sopranos weren’t ideally steady.  That said, the recitatives, with Rousset at the fortepiano, quite often fell flat.  They were sparingly accompanied and it seemed that Monica Bacelli’s Sesto was at a disadvantage as a result as it seemed difficult for her to get the correct pitch from the pit with intonation that, combined with her sprechgesang-like delivery, made her Sesto sound more like Schoenberg than Mozart.  Bacelli certainly sang with a lot of passion and the triplets at the end of ‘parto, parto’ were nice and even.  Her mezzo loses the core of the sound under mezzo-forte where the tone has a tendency to sound threadbare.  She was certainly highly energetic and her Sesto was deeply felt, however, I longed for some classical beauty in her singing as well as more accurate pitching.  The audience, however, loved her giving her a rapturous ovation at the end.

Monica Bacelli & Karina Gauvin.  Photo: © Javier del Real
Monica Bacelli & Karina Gauvin. Photo: © Javier del Real

Sophie Harmsen was a lovely Annio.  Her ‘torna di Tito a lato’ was sung with delightfully fresh tone, even throughout the range and the voice opened up wonderfully at the top.  Her legato is also very good.  I very much hope to hear her Sesto soon.  Sylvia Schwartz was a tense and neurotic Servilia, singing with crystalline yet somewhat narrow tone.  Guido Loconsolo’s Publio was a tower of strength, handsome oaky tone but a tendency to woolliness while singing legato.

Monica Bacelli & Karina Gauvin.  Photo: © Javier del Real
Monica Bacelli & Karina Gauvin. Photo: © Javier del Real

Jeremy Ovenden was a fine Tito.  I must admit to wishing for a more Latin warmth in the role but he certainly sang it extremely well.  He is very much in control of the passaggio, deploying those big leaps in ‘del più sublime soglio’ with elegant evenness.  His singing was always most stylish and for once it was a real pleasure to hear someone who actually seemed to enjoy singing ‘se all’impero’ dispatching it with aplomb and not a hint of discomfort.

Monica Bacelli & Jeremy Ovenden.  Photo: © Javier del Real
Monica Bacelli & Jeremy Ovenden. Photo: © Javier del Real

Then there was Gauvin’s Vitellia.  When I saw her sing the role in Paris, France in 2014 I felt at the time that she was still working the role into the voice.  Tonight, she was completely in control of the part, dominating the stage with her acting and her vocalism.  Indeed, this was the kind of total performance that united voice, text and physicality that one longs for.  One can tell that her extensive experience in the baroque repertoire informs her dispatch of the recitatives which become real, living moments.  Her opening number ‘deh, se piacer mi vuoi’ was sung with endless lines, ravishing tone and beautiful ornamentation.  As she sang ‘vengo, aspettate’ she wasn’t afraid the make the tone brittle, genuinely bringing out Vitellia’s sense of panic yet with all the notes bang in tune.  The evening culminated in a ‘non più di fiori’ of deep feeling where she poured her heart out for us, finding so many subtleties in every variation.

Karina Gauvin.  Photo: © Javier del Real
Karina Gauvin. Photo: © Javier del Real

The evening was well received by the audience and clearly there were many who appreciated the staging though, as I mentioned above, I found both it and the conducting lacking in dramatic energy.  First nights often have a tendency to be not quite settled and that may well have been the case this evening.  There is much to enjoy in the excellent brass playing and in Ovenden’s Tito a consummate stylist who really felt at home in this music.  Undoubtedly, it’s worth seeing for Gauvin’s commanding Vitellia who tonight gave us a total performance of even more depth than before and gave us something very special indeed.

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One comment

  1. Agreed on all counts. Rousset is like Haim, they both think opera seria means opera SLOW ! Boring! Tito is like a soap and should fly along as the recits are poor and do nothing to propel the narrative….. some decent singing but OMG talk about a draaag of a production. Rousset should stick to playing keypboard, this had NO dramatic propulsion! NONE !

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