Sunday, December 2, 2012

La Clemenza di Tito: It's all about the music

Giuseppe Filianoti as Tito and Elina Garanca as Sesto at the moment when the emperor grants pardon, in Mozart’s “La Clemenza di Tito.” (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)


This experience of going to the Met HD opera series has been a real eye-opener. Some operas I have enjoyed, others I have endured. La Clemenza di Tito falls mainly into the former category, with the advantage that when I started to nod off, it really didn't matter that I may have missed some of the action, there wasn't much going on, and it was possible to figure out what had happened.

The Music
It was Mozart. It was lovely. The music rises, falls and sways. The harmonies melt into each other. You can pay attention to the story line, or not, or just listen to the music and the singing. This was so much nicer to listen to than the last opera (Thomas Adès) that was jarring, discordant and atonal.

Characters and Portrayals
Tito (Giuseppe Filianoti): What can I say, the guy is a wimp. He loves and forgives everyone. It is hard to take his passionate declarations seriously because he is so wishy washy. He's a nice guy and that doesn't make for great dramatic tension.

Vitellia (Barbara Frittoli): The fickle lady. She wants power and claims that she was charmed by the Emperor Tito and now is jealous that he passed her over. Uses Sesto's attraction for her to attempt to get her revenge on Tito. More peevish than evil. Slight channelling of Magenta from Rocky Horror Picture Show, especially the hair.

Sesto (Elina Garanca): What a beautiful performance. Garanca carries all the dramatic tension in this opera in trying to reconcile Sesto's love for Vitellia with his faithful service to Emperor Tito. Garanca's sweet singing and tormented acting are superb. She absolutely carried the story.

Trouser Roles
I was curious about the trouser roles, sung by Elina Garanca as Sesto and Kate Lindsey as Annio. These obviously have to be sung by women because no men have the register needed to hit those notes. The visual impression of women dressed as men wooing other women was that this was Mozart's version of soft porn. Lots of heaving bodices too. My mother pointed out that maybe back in the day these roles would have been sung by castrati, which are admittedly in short supply nowadays.

Production Design, Sets, Costumes
Can't say that I was impressed by the production design, sets, and costumes by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle. La Clemenza di Tito is known as an "opera seria," an opera dealing in serious, historical themes. It is set in Roman times. Nonetheless, the costumes came from the period contemporary with Mozart. I liked the black dress worn by the self-indulgent character Vitellia: the wide panniers of her underskirts emphasized her breadth and impact on the action, while revealing her lack of depth as she turns. It was the perfect graphic representation of the character's shallowness. In general, the textile flounces and flourishes represent the frivolity and superficiality of the characters.

The chorus, with the women wearing some sort of pale wimples on their heads, was most unattractive. These are the same people that we have seen week after week. They are an ordinary looking mixed bunch. But these costumes made the women look tired and ancient, dressed in winding sheets as if ready for the tomb: a zombie chorus. The men had a different, equally unflattering look.

Overall impression: Now I understand what people mean when they talk about the beauty of the music in opera. I could listen to this without having to watch it.

Barbara Frittoli as Vitellia
(AP Photo/Metropolitan Opera, Ken Howard)

Well, opera seria was a throwback even in 1791. When you look at the "great composers" of opera seria, it is easy to see that most of those famous in the day are not exactly celebrated today. Not so Mozart. Like many opera seria, this one was designed for the courts, in fact it was commissioned. What a wonderful opportunity for potentates to see themselves as nearly as important as a Roman emperors, with self-satisfied nods. One can almost see their complacency across the centuries, but of course, their main contribution was to give opera a bad name as music for the elite. I also happened to read somewhere that this libretto in different editions and the story in general were set to music numerous times, the royals had a great appetite for seeing themselves depicted as great leaders.
Mozart manages to rise above all of this, in fact it soars. For amateurs, it is hard to pin down why. Certainly he follows the form pretty closely; da capo aria, recitativo secco with continuo and repeat. In essence I understand this to mean that an aria is sound, a second melody is introduced and then the first melody is repeated and embellished (ABA for fiddle players). Mozart does have some ensembles, however, and they work beautifully very crisp and polished.

I found the recitativo interesting because the traditional harpsichord continuo is played on an organ and this for me introduced a historically discordant note, not necessarily in a bad sense. I think this staging played a little with time as well, messing with our heads in a gentle way. Comments on set and costumes will bear this out.

There are certainly some characteristic features of the day that we do not often see today. One is the character who "tells" us what the main characters are feeling or doing, in case we haven't gotten it. One example was Publico, who mid-way through Act II sings to us that Tito is conflicted. Another is the use of women in the trouser roles. Joan is right that castrati did play some of these roles in the day and they are in short supply today. Gender in opera and when women were allowed on stage is an interesting topic in its own right. At least these women (both of whom were superb) stay in role throughout the performance and do not have to be women playing men, who then have to disguise themselves as women. I kept having the feeling that these women, particularly Sesto (Elina Garanca) were playing with our perceptions keeping us just ever so mildly off-balance in the way that they are 95% in their male role and 5% testing the boundaries of what it means to be male.

The set also left me with questions. What does it mean to set a story in ancient Rome and have it falling apart as it would have been centuries later (crumbling columns, headless statues, etc.). As for the costumes I agree 100 percent with Leslie, except that I would add that having them contemporary late 1700s does a couple of neat things -- it messes with our heads again playing with the sense of time; it allows the court to "see themselves"; and you can imagine Mozart's production staged that way, cheap to costume. In particular I loved Vitellia's dress for all the reasons Leslie has identified. I also found the translucent screen very intriguing. When we first see the first crowd scene praising Tito, it looks like a painting by one of the old Masters, think Rembrandt's Night Watch, grand and dark. Then the translucent screen rises and we see them in action, at the end in the fade to black, the effect is once again reversed and a little unsettling. A technique adapted from the cinema perhaps? I don't know.

I would like to have heard more in the interviews about doing opera seria and how the various people who worked on the costumes, set, props, interpreted the opera and worked with the conductor to bring it to life. Usually the interviews are far more informative and this production would have benefited from expert guidance to viewing an older form. Or just sit back and listen and enjoy!
Elina Garanca as Sesto (photo uncredited on Internet but probably Ken Howard of the Met Opera)

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