Thursday evening saw the premiere of Sam Brown’s new production of the perennially underrated La clemenza di Tito, Mozart’s final nod to opera seria at Theater an der Wien. His concept teleports Metastasio’s original Roman court setting from the year 79 AD to a non-specific, sparse futuristic space where there is no trace of nature or opulence, and non-specifically clothed women all give birth simultaneously. Anyone playing Modern Opera Bingo will have a fairly full card, with numerous favored Regietheater tropes employed. The action opens with a lengthy love scene, followed by beautifully danced and choreographed (Stina Quagebeur as Berenice) modern dance scene — a moment that is pleasant but incongruous with the rest of the evening. Sesto appears in the second act with his hands literally dripping with blood, and extensive video work (Tabea Rothfuchs) is employed, featuring images focused on close-ups of different body parts — hands, eyes, neck — in slow-motion, ostensibly to depict more deeply the emotional state of the characters.

Mari Eriksmoen (Servilia), Jeremy Ovenden (Tito) and Jonathan Lemalu (Publio)
© Werner Kmetitsch

The set design (Alex Lowde) is starkly minimalist — a series of square, lit metal frames which are often set in motion or in hallway-type constructions, surrounding an inner area which is occasionally used to indicate parallel action. The costumes of the leads incorporate metallic or leather blend elements, and sashes and necklaces are used to indicate power or allegiance. The chorus is dressed in nondescript suits and dresses, their only props naked babies in the second act. There were occasionally beautiful tableaux, such as the closing constellations of each act, where combination of warmer lighting, triangular stage setup and cast position were effective, but for the most part the lighting (Jean Kalman) was kept — intentionally — harsh and cold.

Nicole Chevalier (Vitellia), David Hansen (Sesto), Arnold Schoenberg Chor
© Werner Kmetitsch

The result of such a sparse production is that nothing is left to focus on but the individual protagonists on stage. Their singing and acting is put under a thanklessly interrogative light, which can serve to highlight their strengths, but also makes it impossible to ignore their weaknesses. Unfortunately, there were questionable casting decisions made here throughout. Choosing a countertenor for the role of Sesto is an interesting choice and has as much historical validity as using a mezzo, but for modern audiences accustomed to hearing the likes of Joyce DiDonato or Elina Garanča in what has become a standard pants role, Australian countertenor David Hansen’s colour is both fascinating and completely unsettling. Though not a thoroughly convincing actor, his ability to negotiate Mozart’s incredibly tricky coloratura successfully did earn him enthusiastic applause, and one of the more arresting moments of the production was his departure from the metal frame stage to interact with the clarinet. This was, however, not the first time this particular trick has been employed, and Marianne Crebassa’s version of “Parto” at the Salzburger Festspiele two years ago was in another category altogether.

Nicole Chevalier (Vitellia)
© Werner Kmetitsch

Casting Nicole Chevalier as Vitellia was likewise questionable. Although blessed with great stage presence and confidence to spare; this felt like a vocal miscasting that the singer was forced to act her way out of, which she did through absolutely constant activity. Her middle and lower register lacked resonance in this role, and she spent more time shouting, speaking and biting off phrase endings than singing beautifully. Tenor Jeremy Ovenden unfortunately possessed neither the dramatic command nor the vocal heft and ring the Mozart’s title role demands, and Mari Eriksmoen was a capable, attractive but forgettable Servilia. In contrast, the unusual choice of employing a countertenor, Kangmin Justin Kim, as the servant Annio was a wonderful wager won. His is a voice of clear, nuanced beauty, and his command of Italian some of the best on display; likewise Jonathan Lemalu as Publio, who I could happily have heard more from.

Stina Quagebeur (Berenice)
© Werner Kmetitsch

The Arnold Schoenberg Chor (Erwin Ortner), having shown themselves to be an infinitely capable opera chorus, were underused in this production, but I could listen to their vocal work for an entire evening with unadulterated pleasure. Concentus Musicus Wien was solid under the baton of Harnoncourt-heir Stefan Gottfried, and if they were fairly predictable in their tempi and interpretation, it was also nice just to hear some well-played Mozart from a specialist ensemble. In short, not a perfect evening, as evidenced by the freely mixed boos and cheers for the production team, but still with much to recommend it.