“If you deny me generosity, what do I have left? This is the only fruit of kingship. All else is torment and servitude.” A profound and beautiful meditation on the price and privileges of power, La clemenza di Tito is a moving, intelligent piece. Classical Opera, displaying a level of talent which quite honestly enriched every listener, brought Tito truly back to life at Cadogan Hall. We were treated to superb singing, exquisite phrasing, and wonderful playing in a concert performance which thrilled with energy and commitment.

Gillian Ramm © Rayfield Allied
Gillian Ramm
© Rayfield Allied

In his pre-performance talk, a special treat from Classical Opera for the under-35s among us, Ian Page suggested that a concert performance should be “like reading the book, instead of watching the film”. His idea that, by stripping away all the business and distraction of an opera production, you can focus more purely on the music and libretto, struck me powerfully, and the performance resoundingly proved him correct. Rather than an opera on half measures, we have the composer’s ideas at full blast. While we had no staging, thanks to some excellent acting from the talented principals, we had plenty of thought-provoking drama.

Creating most of the drama single-handed was Gillian Ramm as a gloriously vindictive Vitellia. Ramm was in fabulous voice, singing with bristling characterization and a tangible hunger for power which gave her performance real bite. The emotional heart of the whole opera, meanwhile, came from Helen Sherman as Sesto. Her deeply affecting portrayal of the anguished, obsessed traitor was a tour de force, and her stage presence was magnetic as she was torn between her passion for Vitellia and her friendship for Tito. Hanna Hipp was wonderful as Annio, a part which is slightly limited in Act I but blossoms emotionally later, something Hipp clearly understood and made the most of in a compelling performance. Mary Bevan was less assured as Servilia, but sang many of her arias with real beauty. Robert Murray gave a fervent, lyrical performance as Tito. His acting and natural musicality were a delight, and he negotiated Tito’s complex emotional journey with aplomb. Murray found the emotional centre of this subtle character and wielded it skilfully. Meanwhile, Darren Jeffery’s rich bass gave the small, but important, role of Publio a pleasant airing.

The Orchestra of Classical Opera, under Ian Page, created an almost deliriously beautiful sound, playing with imagination and verve. It is hard to believe that Mozart was to die only a few months after finishing La clemenza di Tito; the music is unbelievably satisfying, yet keeps you constantly guessing. It is the music of life, not the music of a dying man. There is such generous munificence of invention: Mozart’s ideas are rich, full of energy, and taste. Always perfectly proportioned, the score has moments of lightness and restraint which give the whole work immeasurable elegance. Page’s sensitive revisions to the recitatives allowed Mozart’s ideas to flow freely, and the delicate trios and duets were a revelation of Mozart’s mathematical precision and vibrant creative genius.  

Beyond the sheer joy of its music, La clemenza di Tito paints an eloquent psychological portrait of power, love, sacrifice and betrayal. Subtle emotional dynamics build while Rome burns: wordless cries from the Chorus (The Choir of Classical Opera) give an atmosphere of horror. The musical ideas grow and swell as the idea of Tito’s death begins to sink in, with the tension constantly ratcheting up until finally everyone’s guilt explodes (or implodes) in the final scene, when Tito finally and astonishingly dispenses mercy in lieu of murder.

La clemenza di Tito comes with a veritable army of apocryphal tales. Mozart composed it (for the coronation of the Habsburg Emperor Leopold II as King of Bohemia in 1791) in, allegedly, a mere eighteen days; he was second choice, the Court having originally approached Salieri five times (who flatly refused); the whole production was pulled together in a matter of weeks, with singers recruited abroad while the music was still being written; and, at the première, the court was worn out (perhaps quite literally intoxicated) by coronation celebrations that the opera was pronounced as universally dull. I suspect they must have drunkenly drifted off during the performance, because in the hands of Classical Opera, it is so beautiful that you want to luxuriate in every exquisitely-wrought note.