It’s one thing for iconoclast directors such as Hans Neuenfels or Frank Castorf to inflict their idiosyncratic interpretations on audiences but when a regisseur decides to add a character to a Mozart opera, it is surely time to say “basta”. Despite numerous references in the text that Tito’s prospective foreign bride Berenice was banished to appease the xenophobic Romans, according to German director Jürgen Flimm, she not only didn’t leave, but is actually living in flagrante with the Emperor. This makes nonsense of Tito’s quest to seek a suitable Roman bride. It was of small relief that the role of Berenice, played by the wonderfully named Mosquera Bonilla Maria del Pilar, is mute.

Unfortunately Flimm’s extra-textual excesses didn’t stop there. There were so many revolvers drawn the mis-en-scène looked more like a staging of La fanciulla del West. Tito points a gun at Sesto, then later at himself and Sesto points a gun at his own head at the opera’s conclusion. Vitellia doesn’t hand Sesto a dagger with which to kill Tito, but rather an assault rifle and bullet-proof vest. Rome does not burn as specified – merely a few unlucky citizens get shot.

The stage designs by George Tsypin and costumes by Birgit Hutter transplant 1st-century Rome to something akin to a recherché cocktail bar on the Via Veneto. Vitellia is probably a secret boozer. Drunks abound. The chorus wear dark suits and ties and carry music stands like some kind of morose Mormon Tabernacle Choir on tour.

Musically things were a slight improvement despite all singers making their house role debuts. Regular Staatsoper maestro Ádám Fischer is not generally considered a  Mozart opera seria specialist like Sylvain Cambreling or Louis Langrée. Although consistently attentive to the singers, his tempi were erratic and there were several lapses in coordination between pit and stage, especially in the “Se al volto mai ti senti” trio and “Ah, grazie si rendano” chorus in Act II. The superb “Ah perdona il primo affetto” duet between Servilia and Annio in Act I is marked Andante but was taken so briskly there was absolutely no sense of lyricism at all. The Staatsoper Orchestra savoured the score with its usual élan and there was some outstanding solo clarinet playing in both Sesto’s “Parto, parto” and Vitellia’s “Non più di fiori” arias.

For the most part, the singers were undistinguished with the exception of young Russian mezzo Margarita Gritskova as Sesto who displayed not only admirable dramatic insight into this most complex of characters but was vocally mellifluous and even-toned in all registers.  Whilst “Parto parto” was  the usual showstopper, the octave-plus leaps in “Deh, per questo istante solo” were steely accurate and there was really beautiful word colouring on “questo cor”. A rock-solid top G natural and excellent chest notes all made for an exemplary performance of this important aria.

Another pleasing and promising performer was Manuel Walser as Publio. He has a warm lyric baritone with impressive stage presence. His short aria was well phrased and displayed an even honey-toned colour.

Servilia was competently sung by young Israeli soprano Hila Fahima but there was little effort at characterization and the confrontation with Vitellia in “saltro che lagrime” lacked conviction. Miriam Albano as Annio was dramatically more convincing and vocally satisfactory, especially in the ensembles.

Like Constanze or Donna Anna, Vitellia is one of the great Mozart soprano roles in which a singer can display all kinds of demonic vocal skills. Unfortunately Australian soprano Caroline Wenborne, despite a stage presence which looked like a louche Lady Macbeth in Lacroix with flame-haired coiffure, had neither the vocal expertise nor dramatic credibility to do the part justice. Wenborne has sufficient coloratura technique to manage the rapid ornamented passages but the seriously low chest notes lacked resonance and there was no zing at the top of the register. The great “Non più di fiori” scena was unexciting and almost torpid. 

Due to the eccentricity of the direction, Benjamin Bruns was unable to display anything like the gravitas and sagacious magnanimity Mozart envisaged for the title role. Brun’s Tito was no imposing imperial potentate. Vocally he was on more secure ground with some impressive fioratura in “Se all'impero, amici Dei” and maintained a pleasing, forward placed tone throughout.

Reputedly Leopold II didn’t much care for La clemenza di Tito. He would have been even less amused by Herr Flimm’s travesty of both Mozart and Metastasio.