Those who first discover what Mozart can do with opera through The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni or The Magic Flute may, on a first hearing of La clemenza di Tito, find that it lacks the feeling or sheer fun of the most popular works. There are hardly any baddies to be swept into hell or redeemed in a touching moment of sentiment; everyone, rather boringly, means well. But Clemenza is a deeply felt work. It is only the opera seria frame of politics and good citizenry that seems to restrict the passions of individual people. In fact, these passions emerge only against the frame.

Take the first act love duet between Sesto and Vitellia, who is only pretending love. One presents a phrase, an invitation as formal as an extended, gloved hand; the second picks it up and returns it. No more. It is the apparent lack of direct expressivity, say of a Romantic flavour, that allows the whole to crystallize into an encompassing tenderness. It remains only for the exceptional Amanda Majeski and Joyce DiDonato to bring the phrases into relief through the sheer distinctiveness of individual musicality. 

As a singer, DiDonato, the better known of the two, is character-driven and applies an explosive imagination to each syllable. She is in some ways a consummately modern mezzo-soprano, in the musical cast of Fischer-Dieskau. Majeski, on the other hand, has the rare ability to hear the length of each note as if from within, letting each sound find its necessary amplitude and decay. Her expressiveness has its gravity around the middle of a note rather than its beginning. Thus, when the two sing together, they can produce natural and apparently minimally tampered-with phrases that nevertheless sound absolutely individual.

Matthew Polenzani goes in a different direction with his Tito, bringing out a theatricality and awkward abstractness in the emperor's gestures. When he slams his fist on a table, it is not so much that action as it is the idea of the action given form. It is at once comic and strangely powerful, as if Polenzani has found a physical grammar to express at once the terrible power of that role and its male anxiousness. Vocally, Polenzani seemed to relax and find space in the second Act as the burdens placed upon the emperor increase. It is a space with which Sir Andrew Davis could have been more generous from the pit, particularly in those textures where Mozart strings together a garlanded accompaniment punctuated by rests

The production, originally by David McVicar, hardly provides the bounty of visual delights that plenish The Barber of Seville and Rusalka, which are currently sharing the stage at the Lyric. It is slow and massive, recalling the rhythm of glaciers. The effect is to make the personages of this show appear (and seem) persistently small, which counters a typical view of what an opera staging is supposed to do. And yet the smallness also seems to abstract the singers, to place them in a no-place in which their betrayals and repentances take on a cosmic gesture.

This is especially the case when Rome is set to fire and smoke shrouds the characters' entrances, overturning the civic familiarity of the city into a kind of hell. Some of the production's simple gestures, such as the impersonal opening of a set of doors against the back wall, seem to serve as a reminder that fate in this world is always ahead, behind, and around you. No one is born guilty, and yet innocence is not something that can be sustained in a political world. The only way out is clemency.