With the first choice, Antonio Salieri, “too busy”, Mozart was commissioned to write his final opera La Clemenza di Tito on a tight timescale of only a few months, to mark the coronation of Leopold II as King of Bohemia in September 1791.

© RCS / KK Dundas
© RCS / KK Dundas

The sombre plot revolves round three women who might become consort to Roman Emperor Tito: Berenice (who does not appear in the opera) was all set to take up the position, but became politically unsuitable. Servilla is Tito’s next choice, but she is already in love with Annio, which would leave the way open for Vitellia but for the fact she has plotted to assassinate Tito in a jealous rage over Berenice. Vitellia is herself in love with Tito’s friend Sesto, whom she successfully turns against the Emperor and exhorts him to murder. Off stage, the Citadel burns, but the attempt is bungled. Sesto is found guilty by the Senate but Tito is determined to uncover the truth.

This opera throws down immediate challenges for directors because main events take place off stage, leaving the action limited to the shifting relationships and plotting amongst the characters. Ashley Dean’s smart modern-dress production for the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland worked best in both the animated and ensemble scenes, which fizzed along with tight direction, but the impetus flagged when arias were allowed to become “stand and deliver”.

Designer Cordelia Chisholm’s simple, effective four-pillar setting with ten-foot-high block cut-out letters “R O M A” providing a striking platform for the drama, spelling out the city in Act I and tumbled over, littering the set in Act II. This was all superbly lit by Richard Howell in subtle but ever-changing patterns using a haze wash. I was less convinced by the need to raise everything up by two feet from stage level, which must have caused problems of direct sightlines between conductor Timothy Dean in the fairly deep pit and his singers at the rear of the stage, as at a few moments timing drifted slightly. Although there were monitor screens for the singers to watch in the auditorium, Dean had to raise his hands high at times to be seen. Costumes were smart modern grey suits for the men and lush evening gowns for the ladies.

On a sparse set with few props, and with an earnest plot with little humour, the pressure was on this international cast of singers to sustain interest and keep the storytelling alive, and they succeeded in this tale of treachery, power-play and forgiveness. In the double-cast two main roles, Icelandic soprano Ragnheiður Óladóttir’s strong voice conveyed Vitellia’s rage and jealousy and final humiliation well, tearing off her dark blue evening dress in the final moments of her mad scene as she knelt in her black slip before Tito at the end of the opera in supplication. Brazilian tenor Luperci de Souza as the ever-forgiving and reasonable Tito gave a steady performance, genuinely perplexed that his friend Sesto should try to kill him. Singing honours of the evening went to Japanese mezzo-soprano Ayaka Tanimoto as Sesto, who made performing Mozart seem effortless and completely natural with her hauntingly beautiful voice and strong stage presence. Irish mezzo-soprano Debora Ruiz-Kordova and Scottish soprano Hazel McBain gave strong supporting performances as the lovers Annio and Servilla, as did Armenian bass Arshak Kuzikyan as Tito’s advisor Publio.

In the pit, Timothy Dean kept the student orchestra moving things along briskly with generally fine and energetic playing all round, particularly from the woodwind and the basset horn in the two obbligato arias. Getting Mozart perfect is difficult enough for professionals, let alone students, and there were a few rough edges, particularly in some fortepiano recitative passages where singing clarity was not quite what it should have been.

At the end of the opera we finally got to meet the strong chorus, dressed for a Roman winter in modern-day street attire using a palette of blues, greys and black. In a particularly baffling decision, Tito changed out of his sharp suit to full Roman emperor toga regalia, complete with laurel leaf headpiece as he clambered up the fallen letters after his final magnanimous act of clemency.

All in all, this was an engaging and enjoyable performance and fine chance for young singers, players, technical and backstage stage crew and to get to grips with the intricacies of putting on Mozart’s too-often overlooked final opera.