La Clemenza di Tito, BBC Prom 59, Royal Albert Hall, RAH, August 2017Posted on 29 August 2017
Hearing the overture without the stage trickery of the Glyndebourne production allowed us to fully appreciate the glorious dramatic intensity and lightness of spirit given to Mozart’s music by Robin Ticciati and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. The absence of efforts at contemporary relevance by a director — one of the joys of opera at the Proms — allowed the music to speak for itself, and the experience was wonderful throughout.
It’s an odd opera though, with four (mezzo) soprano roles (two male, two female), one tenor and one bass. Loosely based on the Roman Emperor Titus, its libretto was written by the renowned Metastasio in 1734 and taken up by some forty composers before Mozart used it in 1791 for one of his last two operas (Magic Flute being the other). The story deals with the generous-hearted Titus, who forgives attempts on his life inspired by the scheming Vitellia, daughter of a previous emperor. Her besotted admirer Sextus is to carry out the plot, and the other couple, Annius (friend of Sextus) and Servilia, show great selflessness in being willing to give up love and status: Annius will give up Servilia as wife to Titus, and Servilia will refuse Titus’s hand in order to be with Annius. Not much Roman history here, but just the kind of love intrigue, nobility and respect for authority to appeal to eighteenth century audiences.
Alice Coote’s Vitellia, appearing first in dark glasses to hide her jealousy of Titus’s erstwhile lover Berenice (represented by an actress), sang with marvellous depth of emotion, moving from aggression and arrogance to penitence at the end. Her big recitative and rondo in Act II mingled hardness with sublime purity to create the serious introspection of which her character is eventually capable. The other three sopranos were all excellent: Anna Stéphany brought out the faithful honesty of Sextus, whose sincere anguish at the aggressiveness of his adored Vitellia in their Act I duet ended with an aria whose superb vocal elaboration inspired huge applause. As Annius and Servilia, Michèle Losier and Joélle Harvey exhibited huge sincerity, their Act I duet raising the performance to its highest level thus far. In Act II, Annius’s pleading for Sextus was beautifully conveyed, and the turning point for Vitellia was so clearly inspired by Servilia’s piercing emotional power in their duet.
Excellent depth from the forthright bass of Clive Bayley as Publius, commander of the Praetorian Guard, and only Richard Croft as Titus disappointed in his sensitive, world-weary portrayal of this emperor, sung with clarity but too underpowered for the Albert Hall.
Bringing Glyndebourne once again to the Proms is a wonderful public service by the BBC — long may it continue.