This new production of Mozart’s final, and often overlooked, opera from John Fulljames and Opera North is neither a period piece nor a straightforward translation into our own time. Instead, it inhabits it own dark and austere world created by set designer Conor Murphy and Finn Ross, whose stylish abstract projections incorporate elements of government buildings both ancient and modern. The Emperor and his advisors, dressed all in black, are presented as gloomy goths, the only colour being provided by the love of Tito’s life, Berenice. In the opera’s libretto Berenice’s expulsion from Rome is only mentioned in passing, but by using the overture as an opportunity to present her relationship with Tito more fully, Fulljames cleverly underlines the reasons behind Vitellia’s jealousy and Tito’s despair in the opening scenes.
Of all the opera’s characters it is Vitellia who fits most comfortably into Fulljames’ reimagining, Annemarie Kremer’s fiery account more than meeting the role’s substantial vocal demands. In Act II her ever-increasing repentance was intelligently conveyed; “Non più di fiori”, her rondo with basset horn obbligato, taking on all the characteristics of a mad scene. The transformation of Sesto from noble patrician to moping teenager was far more problematic. Helen Lepalaan brought fervent devotion and a sensitive attention to musical detail to much of Act II though earlier lacked the dignity and passion to convince. Emphasising Sesto’s unease in his duet with Annio was an interesting touch, if a little overdone.
Many of the evening’s musical highlights came from Kathryn Rudge and Fflur Wyn as the lovers Annio and Servilia. Rudge possessed a rich but never overbearing voice of great beauty whilst Wyn’s purity of tone and unmatched musical commitment made her “S’altro che lagrime” especially touching. Fulljames’ decision to show Servilia watching as Tito interrogated Sesto set up this aria brilliantly.
Paul Nilon delivered a commanding Tito, his triumphant runs in “Se all’impero” negotiated with panache. This was one of several numbers to feature stylish and exciting ornamentation, with Kremer also employing it to accentuate her manipulative nature in Act I. Elsewhere the approach was less successful; excessive display seemed at odds with the sentiment behind Tito’s “Del più sublime soglio” whilst ornaments in the middle of Annio and Servillia’s otherwise perfectly-judged love duet lessened the effect of Mozart’s composed elaborations in its final verse.
Unfortunately the high musical standards set on stage were not matched in the pit, where Douglas Boyd struggled to imbue the score with enough energy in all but the most vigorous of passages. The string playing was frequently untidy and many of the music’s exquisite details – like the telling major seventh chord towards the end of Vitellia’s repentant monologue in Act II – were brushed over and failed to register. Fulljames caused problems in the choruses, where his relegation of the singers to the wings not just for the Act I finale but for the whole opera meant the crucial contrast between public and private was mostly ignored.
Much of the richness of La Clemenza di Tito can be lost when even minor cuts are made to its recitatives, as Mozart’s collaborator Mazzolà had already whittled down Metastasio’s libretto to nothing but its most essential elements. It was a delight, therefore, to experience these recitatives in full, performed with such a fine sense of dramatic pacing. Tito’s two lengthy monologues in Act II were particularly powerful, with Nilon communicating every dilemma and sacrifice with astute insight. With Tito’s emotions so sensitively and movingly captured earlier it was unfortunate that this element of the work became so laboured-over in the opera’s finale. Here, the usually joyous conclusion was undercut and distorted by pain and doubt; a despairing Emperor was presented as isolated from the people he loved, many of whom lay exhausted and weeping on the ground.
There is much to admire in this new production, but by casting a shadow over the glorious C major of the opera’s final pages Fulljames ultimately loses sight of its most important message. La Clemenza is first and foremost a celebration of the extraordinary human capacity for love and forgiveness, qualities which should, in the end, triumph over everything.