All’s for the best in this best of all possible worlds, as Pangloss declared in one of Mary Miller’s earlier successes at Bergen National Opera. While few would choose Candide as their model riposte to a global pandemic, the Scottish artistic director could reasonably borrow that line to cap her farewell production after ten years at the helm: a defiant account of Mozart’s final opera that’s beautifully cast with six Norwegian nationals and intelligently rethought by London-based Rodula Gaitanou from her aborted original plans of a year ago. The result is a triumph of simplicity and clarity, light on pomp and glitter but forensically presented to reflect our times.

Bror Magnus Tødenes (Tito) and Adrian Angelico (Sesto)
© Monika Kolstad

It may be the farewell opera for Miller but it was a first for conductor Edward Gardner when he began his tenure as music director of ENO, and both company leaders have declared it their favourite Mozart opera – as much perhaps for its psychological depth and the crystalline constraints of opera seria as for the beauty of its arias, ravishing though these are. But I suspect there’s something more. Its dramatic engine is powered not by revenge but by remorse, and there is a noble beauty in that. Benevolence as the hallmark of wise leadership… we can only wish.

Metastasio’s libretto for La clemenza di Tito was a dog-eared old thing that had famously been set on 40-odd occasions by the time a commission reached Mozart’s desk. The impecunious composer chose to adapt it to suit his own needs, and now Gaitanou has faced the same challenge. “The production has been re-thought and redesigned to be able to accommodate safety protocols. It's an abstract rendition of the essence of the piece.” Extraordinarily, her mature reimagining, along with that of her creative team, was directed entirely by online links from London, and Gardner confesses he’s never even met the director face to face. The result is sharp, cut to the bone and powered by some remarkable lighting by Simon Corder and (in situ) Ivar Skjørestad. Square acting spaces materialise and vanish on the floor, while the burning of the Capitol is achieved by means of zigzag light gantries and a lot of running.

La clemenza di Tito
© Monika Kolstad

Given the production style, it matters little that Bror Magnus Tødenes is way too young for the title role. The tenor has a lustrous Mozartian timbre and colours the Emperor’s benevolence with plenty of interior anguish – he sustains high levels of intensity throughout his second-act scena with Adrian Angelico’s brilliantly sung Sesto – and it’s an epic face-off by both artists. Angelico, a trouser-role specialist who is now male in life as in art, is a golden-toned mezzo-soprano whose versatility is only bounded by the roles available to him. Strauss has recently been his home composer as both Octavian and the Komponist, but a role like Sesto is meat and drink to him, nowhere more so than in the aria “Parto, parto, ma tu ben mio” with its rhapsodic basset clarinet obbligato (splendidly rendered by a soloist from the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra).

Beate Mordal (Vitellia)
© Monika Kolstad

The pit microphones capture every muttered utterance of Gardner’s singalong conducting, but against this irritation his galvanising musical direction brings out the best in everyone from his instrumentalists to Beate Mordal’s fine Vitellia, whose star aria “Non più di fiori” is a high point in Act 2. Frøy Hovland Holtbakk as Servilia, Ingeborg Gillebo as Annio and Christian Volle as Publio are all secure and idiomatic, as is the invisible Edvard Grieg Choir, despite being piped in from a rehearsal room. Indeed, apart from bellicose levels of faithfully recorded foot-clunking (it can’t be a coincidence that Mordal discards her stilettos prior to her big scene) Mozart is given due honour throughout.

This performance was reviewed from the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra live video stream