Considering the parlous financial circumstances in which many opera houses presently find themselves, the benefit of shared production costs makes a lot of sense. When the same staging can be seen in Perm and London, or Leeds and Sydney, there is something to be said for U-Haul set peregrinations. Unlike many houses in Europe and America, the Polish National Opera is far from short of a few złotys, but for artistic and international collaborative reasons, has embraced the concept of shared stagings with avidity.

<i>La clemenza di Tito</i> © National Opera of Poland
La clemenza di Tito
© National Opera of Poland

Driven by the visionary Intendant Waldemar Dąbrowski, the Teatr Wielki has already forged important co-production ties with the US and Europe, and last year’s export of Mariusz Treliński’s clever double-bill of Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta with Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle caused a sensation at the Met. In the case of La clemenza di Tito, the collaboration was with the venerable Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels, which not only sent a contemporary hotel room and TV-studio bleachers to replicate 1st-century Rome, but also a Belgian theatre director (Ivo Van Hove) who seemed far more concerned with visual projections than lyricism and text. Instead of Rome in ruins, there were a few strip-heaters and a puff of smoke. Of course for locals accustomed to the quirks of Polish enfants terribles such as Treliński, Warlikowski and Znaniecki, this was all quite tame.

Van Hove's directional concept that Clemenza is really about the inner psychology of most of the characters is not controversial. Themes of friendship, fidelity, forgiveness and the loneliness of leadership concerned Mozart deeply. Van Hove’s rationale of how to best convey these inner psychological dilemmas was through extreme close-up projections above the set of every facial twitch and grimace – of either the character actually singing or capturing the reaction of those involved. This is all very well, but once unleashed, the conceit became intrusive, distracting and annoyingly didactic, such as the sustained image of the knife which Vitellia gives Sesto to kill Tito. There was also the irksome presence of four cinematographers moving around the stage which made the performance seem like a film take for Arte.

Musically things were in much better hands. Last-minute replacement conductor Benjamin Bayl displayed a mature understanding of Mozartian musical line and elicited some fine playing from the Polish National Opera Orchestra, especially the strings and woodwinds. The first clarinet has a lot to do in this opera and the solos in “Parto, parto” and “Non, più di fiori” were both virtuosic and subtle. The substitution of a fortepiano for cembalo was less satisfactory in that the resonance was far too heavy for the lengthy and important recitatives.

Apart from American tenor Charles Workman in the title role and Italian Anna Bonitatibus as Sesto, the rest of the cast were Polish. This was a Glyndebourne-esque ensemble performance with remarkably high standards of singing and dramatic commitment.

Costumed to look a bit like a sombre CIA agent, young Polish bass Krzystof Bączyk as Publio displayed an agreeable, warm timbre and was particularly solid in the Act II trios. The dramatically less complex role of Servilia was sung by Katarzyna Trylnik who showed surprising grit when confronting Vitellia in “S’altro che lagrime”. The sublime “Ah, perdona al primo affetto” duet with Annio was one of the musical highlights of the performance.

Perhaps the finest singing of the evening came from Anna Bernacka as an absolutely mellifluous, honey-toned Annio. Here is a mezzo of immense musicality who brought real insight and some superb Mozartian phrasing to both “Torna di Tito a lato” and “Tu fosti tradito”.

As the psychologically tormented Sesto, Anna Bonitatibus showed an admirable empathy for the inner angst of the character and both “Parto, parto” and the deeply anguished “Deh, per questo istante solo” arias were sung with sensitive phrasing and consistent evenness of tone.

Looking suitably voluptuous and viperish, the Vitellia of Ewa Vesin was dramatically and vocally assured. The top B naturals in “Deh, se piacer mi vuoi” were strong and accurate while the extraordinarily low chest note demands of the “Non più di fiori” rondo (low A and even G naturals) had  dramatic punch without losing musical integrity.

Despite a stage appearance reminiscent of a suave Steve Martin in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Charles Workman gave a committed and vocally elegant interpretation of Tito Vespasiano. There was fine lyricism in “Del più sublime soglio” and “Se all’imperio, amici Dei” displayed some heroic singing, a luxuriant mid-range timbre, accurate fioratura and only slight hesitation at the very top of the register. The National Opera chorus sang with precision and power and the fff “tradimento” at the end of Act I was truly terrifying.

This was a visually irritating but musically gratifying performance of one of Mozart’s most underrated masterpieces. “Tutti assolvo, e tutto oblio” indeed.