How iconoclast do you like your Mozart? In their Clemenza di Tito, premièred last summer in Salzburg and now showing at Dutch National Opera, conductor Teodor Currentzis and director Peter Sellars set the bar high. Mozart’s last opera is often criticized for being a throwback to an outdated conventional style. It was composed in a rush, for the most official of occasions, Emperor Leopold II’s accession to the throne of Bohemia. In a controversial move, the pair remodelled Clemenza as they think it could have been, hadn’t it been hamstrung by Imperial étiquette and lack of time. The final result is certainly new, sometimes extremely beautiful, sometimes no less than infuriating.

Russell Thomas (Tito) and Paula Murrihy © Ruth Walz
Russell Thomas (Tito) and Paula Murrihy
© Ruth Walz

These enfants terribles start by getting rid of most of the recitatives, under the pretext that, pressed for time, Mozart entrusted them to his pupil Süssmayr. What is left of them is very freely translated for the subtitling to fit the modernized plot imagined by Sellars: “traditor” (traitor) becomes “terrorist”. The storyline focuses on contemporary issues: class and racial divide, the refugee crisis, terrorism. Those themes have been overused on the opera stage (only a couple of months ago, the Opera Forward Festival featured a production of Clemency with suicide bombers and a refugee-themed Das Floss der Medusa) but it is undeniable that some of the scenes in this staging are extremely poignant. The crowd waking in the streets, standing before masses of candles and portraits laid on the pavement to protest the rampage of terrorism, is an image unfortunately too close to home not to be stirring.

One would expect Emperor Tito pardoning his attackers to be a clear political statement against the War on Terror. However, this message gets blurred as Mozart’s original happy end is replaced by (spoiler alert!) the death of Titus, who succumbs to his injuries. I cannot say I care for the substitution of the original message of hope by this utterly pessimistic, darker ending.

Paula Murrihy (Sesto) and Florian Schuele © Ruth Walz
Paula Murrihy (Sesto) and Florian Schuele
© Ruth Walz

The emperor’s death is the occasion for Currentzis to insert into the score music from another work by Mozart (the Masonic Funeral Music in C minor), something he does throughout the performance. The crowd cheers the Emperor with the Benedictus from the Mass in C minor, or mourns his attempted murder with its Kyrie. The terrorists prepare their attack and walk the street with their loaded backpacks to the Adagio and Fugue in C minor. Dramatically, most of these insertions – cherry-picked to fit the mood of the action – do not feel intrusive. Musically, they are a treat.

The musicians of MusicAeterna play impeccably and beautifully, both as an ensemble or individually, and there is even a star appearance on stage from clarinettist Florian Schuele. Their virtuosity is baffling as they follow Currentzis in self-indulgent tempi that often switch from thundering speed to complete standstill. There are a lot of these sudden changes, far too many, to the point that they end up losing their dramatic impact, becoming an irritating cause of sea-sickness. Sesto’s “Parto, parto” from Act 1, for example, is taken extremely slowly, punctuated by long silences to the point that it becomes totally unrecognisable. Paula Murrihy, a superb Sesto, certainly deserves praise for coping with the sluggishly unwinding phrases and long pauses imposed by Currentzis. I couldn’t help noticing that some of her honeyed tone got lost in the process, when compared to her performance under a more sympathetic conductor last October.

Florian Schuele and Ekaterina Scherbachenko (Vitellia) © Ruth Walz
Florian Schuele and Ekaterina Scherbachenko (Vitellia)
© Ruth Walz

The rest of the cast was strong, with the exception of Ekatarina Scherbachenko’s unconvincing Vittelia. Her lower range lacked resonance, the high notes sounded strained, ornamentations were sluggish. This was damaging to the storytelling too: left with truncated recitatives and with a Vitellia lacking in temperament, one really does not understand how she manages to convince Sesto to bomb the Capitol. Russell Thomas’ dark tenor made for an imposing Titus. His voice is unusually large for this role but it retains the necessary flexibility. As Titus lies dying on a hospital bed, his coloratura passages are acted as the expression of his agonising pain to striking effect. Sir Willard White, celebrating his 25th appearance in a Dutch National Opera production, was a booming Publio, his granite timbre immediately recognizable. Janai Brugger’s bright and flexible soprano made a delightful Servilia. Jeanine De Bique’s round timbre laced with a hint of metal was splendid both in the Mass in C minor passages and Annio’s aria. The most moving performance however came from the MusicAeterna Choir from Perm, whose excerpts from the Mass in C minor, the Kyrie especially, formed the highlights of the evening. And this is a bit troubling when the show is supposed to be about La clemenza di Tito.