Mozart’s penultimate opera, La Clemenza di Tito is a curious work; probably the least known of his major operas, it is heavy on the recitative and lacks any “big tunes”, but it has a fascinating and timeless plot, which offers moments of high drama and eloquently depicts the loneliness of the supreme ruler.

Tito, Emperor of Rome, is loved by his people and renowned for his just and fair rule, but the actions of his close friend Sextus will put his principles sorely to the test. Sextus is smitten with Vitellia, daughter of a cruel military ruler who was deposed by Tito’s father, and she uses Sextus as the instrument of her revenge, inciting him to stir up rebellion and murder Tito. The uprising happens, Rome burns but Tito escapes assassination and learns that Sextus was behind the plot. Sextus loyally refuses to implicate Vitellia but thinking that Sextus has been condemned to death, Vitellia eventually confesses. Tito, despite the anguish he suffers over his friend’s betrayal refuses to take the first step on the road to despotism and pardons both of them.

The costumes for English Touring Opera’s production suggested an Evita-era South American dictatorship, with plenty of military uniforms and elegant 40s-style dresses, which worked well, as it served to highlight just how surprising and unexpected Tito’s mercy is. The set was minimalist but suggestive, littered with fragments of statues and fallen masonry, but the lighting was too gloomy and the singers were often obscured in shadow. At times, various characters mounted towers or balconies higher up the set, and although this was visually effective, all the voices were unable to project into the theatre effectively from that height.

Mark Wilde carried the title part with a perfect mix of authority and humanity, and his acting in the long anguished scene between Tito and Sextus was enthralling, especially at the moment when he forced himself out out of the role of friend and back into his position as leader to sign, then rip up the death warrant. His singing was powerful, although he seemed to lose tone a little in some of the longer passages. He was shadowed around the stage by his Sir Humphrey-like advisor Publius, played with dry wit by Philip Spendley, always immaculate in his sharp suit, and frantically trying to resist what he clearly saw as erratic behaviour by his leader.

The parts of Sextus and his friend Annius are written for sopranos and Julia Riley and Charlotte Stephenson were thoroughly convincing as the two men: Julia Riley’s Sextus arias were particularly impressive. As Vitellia, Gilliam Ramm was initially disappointing; her acting was good but her voice seemed a little shrill on the higher notes. However, she really shone in her great aria Non più di fiori in Act 2, when she finally realises she must save Sextus by confessing to Tito and giving up her hopes of reclaiming her throne by marrying him: this long and dramatic aria really brought out the richness of her lower register. I did think though that smearing her face with what I think was supposed to be the ashes of her dead father was macabre and distracting, especially given the tightly controlled restraint of the drama compared to some operas.

ETO’s orchestra did a wonderful job in bringing life to a score which lacks the big moments of other Mozart operas. The playing fizzed along, full of energy, particularly in the woodwind sections; the clarinet and basset horn obbligato passages were highly enjoyable even if they distracted me from what was going on on the stage.

Tito certainly isn’t one of Mozart’s greatest works, but English Touring Opera have made from it an excellent evening’s entertainment that highlighted the thoughtfulness of the drama. When Tito sings that he envies the peasant who can enjoy a good night’s sleep, or that he cannot start killing his people even when they betray him, he forces us to confront the dilemmas that all leaders must deal with to some degree.