La Clemenza di Tito, English Touring Opera, ETO, Hackney Empire, London, March 2011

This is essentially Mozart’s last opera, though its premiere on 6th September 1791, was 24 days ahead of Zauberflöte. The title character, Titus succeeded his father Vespasian as Roman Emperor, and the opera is concerned with issues about his choice of wife, and a plot to assassinate him.

The background to the story is that while Vespasian was alive, Titus fell in love with the Judaean queen Berenice, and she later lived with him in Rome. The love between Titus and Berenice was very recently the subject of a new one-act ballet, Invitus Invitam, by Kim Brandstrup, showing Titus’s awful dilemma. Roman opposition to his choice of the foreign queen as a future wife led him to give her up, and this is roughly where the opera starts.

Gillian Ramm as Vitellia

Vitellia (daughter of Vitellius, who had been emperor for over a half a year before being deposed by Vespasian) is determined to marry Titus, which will help regain power for her own faction. Her fury at his plans to marry Berenice lead her to plot his assassination, and to accomplish this she uses Titus’s close friend Sextus, who adores her. When Titus rejects Berenice she hesitates, but when he chooses Sextus’s sister Servilia, she renews her demands for his death. In the meantime, Servilia confesses to Titus that she is already betrothed to Annius, a friend of Sextus and supporter of Titus, so he chooses Vitellia to be his wife, but the plot is already in motion, and Act I ends with a partial destruction of the city and erroneous announcement that Titus is dead.

Titus and Sextus in Act 2, all photos by Richard Hubert Smith

Redemption for all guilty parties has to wait for the second and final act, which shows the magnanimity of Titus. The title La Clemenza di Tito is of course Italian, but this production is sung in English, and for that reason no surtitles were shown. This was a great shame because the diction for some of the singers was not at all clear, and anyone going to see this should first read the excellent synopsis in the programme.

The production by James Conway, with large but simple designs by Neil Irish, worked very well, and the modern costumes with Titus, Sextus and Annius in military uniform were really rather effective. The roles of Sextus and Annius are both trouser roles, so it helps to see them both in very masculine costumes.

The chorus at the end with Titus above

Mark Wilde sang Titus with superb clarity, showing excellent stage presence, and Philip Spendley was terrific as Publius, the prefect of the Praetorian Guard. The opera starts with a monologue by Vitellia, who was most beautifully sung by Gillian Ramm, and Julia Riley sang strongly as Sextus, portraying the role of a man very well indeed. Rhona McKall was a lovely Servilia, and Charlotte Stephenson a most earnest Annius. Bravo to the English Touring Opera for putting this on, but I do have one very serious reservation. With the absence of surtitles it was impossible to understand what was being sung for much of the time. The men, Mark Wilde and Philip Spendley, had wonderful diction, so no problem there, but the women were all to a greater or lesser extent incomprehensible. The ETO certainly do use surtitles, as they did with the two Puccini operas, so there is no reason they cannot do similarly when the operas are given in English, just as the ENO now do.

Apart from this one reservation, I think the ETO are doing a wonderful job with these touring productions of some very fine operas. Mozart’s music for this one is glorious, and Richard Lewis in the orchestra pit fully brought out its beauty, keeping very much in touch with the singers.

After this performance in Hackney, La Clemenza di Tito goes on tour to the following venues: Cambridge Arts Theatre, March 16, 19; Exeter Northcott, March 23, 26; Assembly Hall Theatre, Tunbridge Wells, March 29; The Hawth, Crawley, April 2; The Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham, April 6, 9; The Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield, April 12; Snape Maltings Concert Hall, April 16; Norwich Theatre Royal, April 19; Buxton Opera House, May 6; Hall for Cornwall, Truro, May 11; Lighthouse, Poole, May 14; Gala Theatre, Durham, May 17; Perth Festival, Perth Theatre, May 20; Grand Opera House, Belfast, May 28.

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