Mozart’s last opera, La clemenza di Tito (Titus’ Clemency), has long been one of his least popular among his mature works. It has been dismissed for countless reasons, alleged to have been over-hastily written, possibly only in 18 days. The recitatives are not by the maestro but most probably by his assistant Süssmayr. More importantly, it is based on a libretto by Metastatio written over half a century earlier which, after Mozart's inspired collaborations with Lorenzo Da Ponte, seems like a step back into outdated conventions. Nonetheless the music is brilliant and, since the mid-1970s, it has been making a slow but steady return to grace. This season might well mark its consecration back into standard repertoire, with numerous scheduled performances. Last summer saw a new production staged by Claus Guth at Glyndebourne and the much talked about Sellars/Currentzis gig at the Salzburg Festival, which will be come to Dutch National Opera next May. Later this season, there will be productions at the Opéra de Paris, Opera Vlaanderen and in Toulouse. Last Wednesday’s semi-staged performance at the Concertgebouw might not have been as high-profile, but it was thoroughly enjoyable and proved that one can never have too much Clemency.

<i>La clemenza di Tito</i> © Hans Hijmering
La clemenza di Tito
© Hans Hijmering

Credit should firstly go to conductor Kenneth Montgomery who led the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century in a swift, finely detailed interpretation of the score dotted with pleasantly surprising dynamic and rhythmic touches. The period strings shone warmly, the brass sounded audaciously heady, the woodwinds – which get the lion’s share of solo accompaniment in the arias – were virtuosic. The balance between orchestra and solo voices, or with the impeccable choral singing from Cappella Amsterdam, sounded ideal.

The mise en espace by Jeroen Lopes-Cardozo was straightforward, making use of hardly any props. The singers entered and paced the Concertgebouw’s podium, clad in simple concert attire, only strangely wrapped into bright coloured shawls made to resemble togas that sometimes seemed to hamper movement. This simple set-up left all the space for the music and acting to express the storytelling. The cast was composed of a homogeneous line-up of fine young voices, many of which were Dutch. Henk Neven lent his handsome baritone timbre to the small role of Publio. Mezzo Rosanne van Sandwijk was an expressive Annio and Laetitia Gerards a moving Servilia, both voices marrying beautifully in their duet “Ah, perdona al primo affetto”.

<i>La clemenza di Tito</i> © Hans Hijmering
La clemenza di Tito
© Hans Hijmering

Unlike one would expect from the title, the hero in the opera is not really the Emperor Tito, but rather his friend Sesto, originally a castrato role in the grand tradition of opera seria. The young patrician has been seduced by the venomous Vitellia who persuades him to murder the emperor. Sesto’s plan fails, although he still burns down the Capitol. Eventually both Sesto and Vitellia are pardoned by the magnanimous emperor, hence the opera's title. Irish mezzo Paula Murrihy, a memorable Octavian at the DNO two years ago, returned to Amsterdam as a fantastic Sesto. Her unaffected, expressive acting and honey-toned mezzo-soprano, warm and  agile, fitted the passionate but hapless character as a glove. She made of her Act 1 aria “Parto, parto”, when Sesto announces to Vitellia he is going to get on with it, the pivotal moment of the opera.

Dutch soprano Deirdre Angenent, a name new to me, displayed plenty of temperament as the manipulative Vitellia. Her dark-hued soprano was projected imperiously, only displaying some shrillness at the very top. With his bright unforced tenor, Dane Anders Dahlin was a youthful-sounding Tito, emphasizing more the reflective and gentle side of the emperor than his regal posture.