Animal Kingdom: La Clemenza di Tito at the Opéra royal de Wallonie-Liège

Mozart – La Clemenza di Tito.

Tito – Leonardo Cortellazzi
Vitellia – Patrizia Ciofi
Sesto – Anna Bonitatibus
Annio – Cecilia Molinari
Servilia – Verónica Cangemi
Publio – Markus Suihkonen

Chœurs de l’Opéra royal de Wallonie-Liège, Orchestre de l’Opéra royal de Wallonie-Liège / Thomas Rösner.
Stage directors – Cécile Roussat & Julien Lubek.

Opéra royal de Wallonie-Liège.  Liège, Wallonia, Belgium.  Friday, May 17th, 2019. 

Upon entering the beautiful jewel box auditorium of the l’Opéra royal de Wallonie-Liège, the audience for this Clemenza di Tito was greeted with the sound of birdsong and other animal noises.  What directors Cécile Roussat and Julien Lubek give us is a Clemenza, but not as we know it.  They set the piece in an animal kingdom – Tito is part-man, part-horse (at least until ‘se all’impero’ when the horse half of his body is removed) while Sesto appears to be a dog, or perhaps a fox.  Annio is a bird man who flies in on occasion, while I have absolutely no idea what the others are supposed to be – feel free to use the comments section below to make suggestions if you are any wiser.  This moving of a piece about power, lust, sex and forgiveness to the world of animals, was explained in a note in the program book by the co-directors as an attempt to find a universality in the piece.  Yet what could be more universal than power, lust and sex?

Photo: © Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège

What we get, instead, is a good show.  The stage is populated by extras in animal costumes, as well as acrobats.  It’s a busy staging, where the singers are parked at the front to make stock operatic gestures, while the extras and acrobats go about their business on stage.  For instance, as Tito sang ‘del più sublime soglio’ he was parked in the centre of the stage, making entreating hand gestures, while men in loincloths played with balls around him.  It was certainly interesting to look at and seemed to have been well received by the audience.  There was a moment of high drama as one of the extras fell into the pit early on – fortunately neither he nor the orchestra members or their instruments were harmed.  The main issue was that it felt visually confused, as if the directing team were unable to trust the singers to drive the story forward, and instead felt obligated to add as much visual distraction as possible.  When they finally left a character alone in stage, in ‘non più di fiori’, the humanity in Mozart’s music was able to come to the fore.  There’s a kernel of a good idea here – following Tito’s attempted assassination, the stage became ever emptier, as if without Tito life was lost.  Yet, on the whole it felt confused and superficial.  The positive, at least, is that if at some point the house wants to stage The Cunning Little Vixen, they have a ready-made set and costumes available.

Photo: © Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège

Musically, it was much stronger.  Leonardo Cortellazzi was a very fine Tito.  Fuller-voiced than most, he negotiated the treacherous passaggio-crossing writing with ease.  His is a very handsome sound, truly sung off the text, with his native diction giving much pleasure.  He got through ‘se all’impero’ on sheer willpower (which is the case for the vast majority of Titos) but he found a depth of understanding of the leader’s predicament and ultimate clemency, that I found particularly convincing.  A notable assumption.  Sesto was sung by Anna Bonitatibus, surely the finest interpreter of the role today.  Bonitatibus found so much beauty in the music, digging deep to colour the tone and bringing out its inner truth.  Her ‘parto, parto’ was dispatched with ease, the triplets absolutely even and free of aspirates.  In ‘deh, per questo istante solo’ she found a glorious depth of feeling, transporting this listener through her colouring of the words and judicious use of ornamentation that made it feel that she was the only person in the world capable of singing this music.

Photo: © Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège

Patrizia Ciofi is a singer who has given me an enormous amount of pleasure in Mozart in the past – her recording of Susanna with René Jacobs, for instance, is a reference for the role.  Vitellia, however, is a tough assignment.  The role sits low and requires a fearless, meaty chestiness that few have.  It sits low for the dusky sunniness of her soprano, with the lower notes sounding hollow.  She sang ‘non più di fiori’ with great depth of feeling, using embellishments to the line to bring out ever further depths of emotion with every variation.  She gave a respectable account of herself and her Vitellia was always sung off the text, although I left with a sense that it wasn’t an ideal role for this excellent artist.

Photo: © Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège

In the remainder of the cast we had a youthful Annio from Cecilia Molinari who sang with an exquisite legato and tone of fruity sappiness.  Verónica Cangemi was a fuller-voiced Servilia than we usually hear, but there was a touch of rawness at the very top.  Markus Suihkonen sang Publio with a wonderfully masculine, full and rounded bass.  This surely is an instrument that’s going to grow even more over the next few years.  The chorus sang its music from the boxes at the side of the stage, as well as from the pit, which meant that balance wasn’t optimal.  Thomas Rösner led a stately reading with a plush string sound from the modestly sized band, playing with full vibrato, with tuning not always unanimous.  The excellent horns were also dominant in the orchestral texture.  Tempi were leisurely and lacked an ideal sense of incisiveness.  The recitatives, in particular, had a tendency to sag, lacking that crackling sense of tension that they really need to live.

Photo: © Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège

There were most certainly some elements that gave pleasure in tonight’s Clemenza – Bonitatibus’ peerless Sesto, Cortellazzi’s finely sung Tito, as well as an excellent Annio and Publio.  The staging was nothing if not adventurous.  It was clearly conceived with honourable intentions and with a willingness to try and find the essence of the work.  Unfortunately, it didn’t succeed due to the apparent reluctnace to use the singers to drive the narrative, the overreliance on acrobats and visual effects, and the fact that, consequently, the message of forgiveness became lost underneath the visual layers.  Still, it was definitely a good show and seemed to have been very warmly received by the liégeois public.

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  1. Thanks for this review. I don’t agree with you on the staging, which I found incredibly powerful; the acrobats were indeed very active during some scenes, but knew how to remain discreet during the more intimate sequences. As for the soloists, They were all but left apart in the staging, and, in particular, Tito’s transformation from a centaurus, carrying his horse body as he carries the weight of power, into an agile, hopeful young man, was stunningly consistent to me. We definitely need that kind of a show to bring younger or new audiences to the opera houses!

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