The cheers were warm and genuine. When conductor Mark Wigglesworth brought the orchestra to its feet before launching into the overture to Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito, the socially-distanced audience at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, sent a message, loud and clear: we are so glad to be back. After months of cultural deprivation, here at last were real, live instrumentalists and singers. It was as though the audience knew in advance that their patience would be tested by a new Richard Jones production, but it would be churlish to be... well, churlish.

La clemenza di Tito
© ROH | Clive Barda

A pared back production is required in these Covid times: as little physical contact as possible, no chorus on stage, and tempi brisk and alert to keep the audience in the house for as short a time as possible. Wigglesworth and the cast certainly took that seriously, with no time allowed for applause after arias, and recitatives taken at warp speed. This brought definite benefits. Despite the elegance and grace of a lot of the music, this is Mozart’s least popular opera. It can sag under the weight of its own seriousness, but keeping it moving gave an urgency to the twisting, treacherous narrative.

Pared back also applied to the design, by Ultz. This Ancient Rome is a drab, utilitarian East German-like state, filled with men in ill-fitting brown suits occupying rooms decorated in dull Formica formality. It is not a feast for the eye, but it does serve to intensify the claustrophobic nature of power and the sickening fear that overcomes those who plot to overturn the status quo. There's nothing pared back about the singing, though, with some outstanding performances and an exciting debut.

Emily D'Angelo (Sesto) and Nicole Chevalier (Vitellia)
© ROH | Clive Barda

Vitellia wants Emperor Tito dead because his father overthrew her father. Sesto, blinded by love for Vitellia, agrees to assassinate his friend the emperor. Rome burns, but in the confusion another man is killed and the plot is discovered. Tito is distraught that his friend should want him dead but Vitellia admits her crime and Tito forgives all, wishing to be remembered for clemency rather than tyranny.

Mozart wrote the opera in a tearing hurry, having received the commission only weeks before the first performance was scheduled in Prague, marking the coronation of Leopold II as King of Bohemia. It’s weighty opera seria, yet it has several transcendent moments, not least Sesto’s extended aria “Parto, parto” when he agrees to murder the emperor in return for just one tender glance from the deranged Vitellia. This was beautifully handled by the outstanding Canadian mezzo-soprano Emily D’Angelo, making her house and role debut. There’s a rich mahogany quality to the voice that belies her 26 years and she moves with confidence and ease, even when made to wear long football shorts throughout almost the entire evening. Don’t ask...

Edgaras Montvidas (Tito) and Emily D'Angelo (Sesto)
© ROH | Clive Barda

Mozart had recently completed his clarinet concerto for Anton Stadler and took him to Prague to play a delicious obbligato line he had written for him in “Parto, parto”, played exquisitely last night by Matthew Glendening. His playing alone is worth the price of a ticket.

A side element to the plot is the love between Sesto’s sister Servilia and his friend Annio. When Tito announces that he wishes to marry Servilia, Annio is devastated. Their lovely farewell duet, “Ah, perdona al primo affetto” was a great moment, richly served by sopranos Angela Brower (Annio) and Christina Gansch (Servilia). Nicole Chevalier has a much tougher job as the scheming, reptilian Vitellia. Quite why Sesto would risk everything for her love is a mystery. Jones and Ultz have her hobbled in a dowdy, full-length costume; no feminine wiles here. Her despair when she realises her plot will be uncovered ("In felice, qual orrore!") reaches pantomime levels of craziness which diminish and detract from the power of the music. It also puts enormous strain on her voice, which was fraying towards the end of the evening.

Christina Gansch (Servilia)
© ROH | Clive Barda

Striding through it all in suitably regal fashion was Edgaras Montvidas at Tito, his burnished tenor basking in his magnanimity, though Jones robs him of a grand entrance in the glorious “Che del ciel” chorus, which went for nothing, accompanying a football match instead. Well, we knew our patience would be tested.

Hats off to Jones, though, for an extremely clever twist right at the moment the curtain falls. I won’t spoil it here, but suffice to say it deeply underlines the perfidious nature of all politics, whether in Ancient Rome or modern-day Downing Street.