Classical music matters again. At least judging from the protests against the Stockhausen retrospective Aus Licht and the fierce polemics about the interventions of opera directors. Thus La clemenza Di Tito by Teodor Currentzis and Peter Sellars caused controversy even before its Dutch premiere. They scrapped most of the recitatives and added music from Mozart’s Mass in c minor, among others.
‘A disgrace!’ cried opera fundamentalists without having heard a single note. Their irreconcilable attitude is at odds with Mozart’s own message: forgive even your own murderer. This co-production of Dutch National Opera, Salzburger Festspiele and Deutsche Oper Berlin received a jubilant first night at the Amsterdam Music Theatre on the 7th of May.
Music offers compassion and hope
‘Music can teach us to love, forgive, help, show pity and compassion, cherish hope’, Currentzis had previously told me. According to him, Mozart has an eye for our human weaknesses. He shows us the ‘asymmetrical beauty of our lives’ and is therefore ‘a contemporary composer’. And he is right. Our society is in great need of generosity and forgiveness.
Peter Sellers emphasizes the topicality of the libretto Caterino Mazzolà concocted for Mozart from an older model. The Roman Emperor Tito gives away his wealth to victims of a natural disaster and a fire. Sellars presents them as a group of ragged immigrants. He is often accused of seeking far-fetched connections with the present, but this staging is spot on.
In Mozart’s case, Emperor Tito had to give up his beloved Berenice because she was not a Roman citizen, but a native from Judea. In Sellars’ direction she is a Palestinian. He presents Sesto and his sister Servilia as two refugees who are invited by Tito to build a new life in Rome. He appoints the aristocrat Vitellia as their guide and mentor.
However, she was once rejected by the emperor and urges Sesto to kill him – as a suicide bomber. After an endless series of entanglements and a failed attack on his life, Tito forgives his assailants. Unlike in Mozart’s original he then dies, after which the opera ends with his Maurerische Trauermusik. Although appropriate, I would have preferred to hear the original finale here. Yet the other inserted fragments are aptly chosen.
For example, the formidable choir of musicAeterna sings ‘Benedictus qui venit’ from the Mass in c minor when Tito generously welcomes the asylum seekers. The cheerful singing fits in seamlessly with the festive atmosphere. However, this tilts when the members of the choir suddenly move into the hall. A not all too subtle but striking reference to the hordes of victims of poverty and violence that threaten to flood us. When Servilia rejects Tito’s marriage proposal and he thanks her for her honesty, we hear the exuberant ‘Laudate’.
With such interventions, Sellars and Currentzis make the complex story recognizable. It is a mystery to me why critics would take offence at this. Mozart himself asked his librettist to drastically cut back the version of Pietro Metastasio’s 60-year-old text. Mazzolà brought the opera back from three to two acts and replaced solo recitatives with duets and trios. Why should performers not be allowed to make a revamped version over two centuries later?
‘I only do what the composer wants’, Currentzis said in the aforementioned interview. Though, naturally, he presents his vision, I believe him. It is pure pleasure to hear how accurately and passionately he guides his own musicAeterna through Mozart’s music. Playing on authentic instruments the musicians bring the notes to life with a velvety sound and flashy accents. It sounds tingling fresh, as if the ink is still wet.
The dynamics are striking, switching from barely audible pianissimo to a deafening forte in one fell swoop. Not only the instrumentalists excel in subtle dynamic nuances, but also the choir singers. The moment when in ‘Qui tollis peccata mundi’ they suddenly shift to the faintest whisper in the middle of the word ‘mundi’, is hair-raising.
Everyone hangs on Currentzis’ lip, including the soloists. From row four I could see him miming every phrase – sometimes even singing along audibly. He gives the singers all the space they need, literally breathing along with them, creating pauses whenever he deems it necessary. Even though the tempi are sometimes fast, there is no question of agitation. A few moments when not everyone is quite in sync left aside.
Paula Murrihy is the true star
The cast is of somewhat uneven quality. The tenor Russell Thomas fails to convince as Emperor Tito; his voice is insecure and his acting mediocre. When he comes on stage with his retinue, our attention is inevidently drawn towards Sir Willard White, who has a much nobler appearance. In his twenty-fifth production at The National Opera, the Jamaican-British bass baritone sings the modest role of Publio. Despite his somewhat grainy voice, White convinces with his empathic interpretation.
The soprano Ekaterina Scherbachenko is a credible Vitellia, even though her intonation in the second act is not always flawless. The soprano Janai Brugger is touching in her role of the vulnerable Servilia. Her beloved Annio is a beautiful trouser role by Jeanine De Bique. She has an impressive stage presence and sings the most difficult coloratura with admirable suppleness and flawless intonation.
But the true star of the evening is the Irish mezzo-soprano Paula Murrihy as Sesto, another trouser role. More than Tito, he/she is the main character of this opera. Murrihy phenomenally impersonates the ‘asymmetrical beauty of our lives’. Awkward as the enamoured youngster who can’t resist the double-faced Vitellia. Determined once she’s donned her explosive belt in order to kill Tito, and full of remorse when she’s standing at his deathbed.
Duet between clarinet and soprano
A highpoint in the opera is Murrihy’s duet with the clarinettist Florian Schuele in the aria ‘Parto’, in which she definitively decides to carry out the attack Vitellia has incited. Like two lovers, Schuele and Murrihy circle around each other, one no less virtuoso than the other. Later on Sellars beautifully mirrors this scene, when Schuele besets the guilty Vitellia with a basset horn. Schuele delivers a top performance: he plays his rabidly difficult part by heart while moving about like an experienced actor.
Sellars’ direction is deeply human, even though one would wish for him to somewhat curb his excessive love for pathetic gestures. When choir and soloists once again desperately stretch their arms to heaven or cup their hands over their eyes or ears, the tension ebbs away. When Tito sings his final aria in his hospital bed convulsing in agony of death, this is unintentionally funny.
Nevertheless, dear opera fundamentalists, La clemenza di Tito is an excellent production. Be it only for the exhilarating interpretation of the music.
La clemenza di Tito runs until May 24th. More info and playlist here.