Review: La clemenza di Tito (Canadian Opera Company)
By Wayne Leung
The Canadian Opera Company presents Mozart’s last opera La clemenza di Tito in Toronto
Sometimes you just can’t please everyone even if you’re as benevolent as Emperor Titus. La clemenza di Tito was Mozart’s last opera. It was written on a commission to commemorate the coronation of Leopold II, Holy Roman Emperor as King of Bohemia, in 1791; the last year of the composer’s life.
The opera seria (18th century Italian “serious” opera) is composed around a libretto written by Metastasio and Caterino Mazzolà. Set in the court of Roman Emperor Titus (the Tito of the title) in A.D. 79; the story outlines a plot by Vitellia, daughter of a deposed emperor, to assassinate Tito because he did not choose her to be his empress. The pernicious and conniving Vitellia seduces and manipulates Sesto, Tito’s good friend, and spurs him to murder the emperor.
The performances are superb, Canadian tenor Michael Schade heads the cast as the benevolent yet often conflicted Tito, soprano Keri Alkema is in fine vocal form and deliciously evil as Vitellia but the real stand-out in the cast is mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard who turns in a remarkably layered performance as Sesto (originally written for a castrato, Sesto is performed in this production as a trouser role). Vitellia and Sesto’s beautiful duets are a highlight of La clemenza di Tito.
I found the relative youth of the cast refreshing and also appreciated the fact that director Christopher Alden really put the singers through their acting paces for this production; good acting isn’t necessarily a given in opera. Leonard really channeled Sesto’s anguish from the conflict of betraying his close friend for the woman he loves. Even Alkema’s Vitellia who starts out as a Disney villain-esque paragon of cruelty becomes pitiable in her remorse in Act II.
A more contentious point than the performances is the production and direction. Alden and his production design team chose to re-imagine the setting for the opera in a Roman empire transposed in time to the 1960s blending design elements from both influences. For the most-part I thought the designs were cleverly executed and the concept really worked for me.
Terese Wadden’s costumes update Roman togas with elements of contemporary athletics gear, Sesto’s sister Servilia (Mirelle Asselin) wears a subtly tie-dyed flower child dress, Tito appears in regal purple embroidered silk pajamas with a golden tapestry often draped over his shoulders and Vitellia’s dress is a beautiful blend of the draped fabric reminiscent of ancient Rome but is of a cut and silhouette from the ‘60s.
Set designer Andrew Cavanaugh Holland worked with the idea of creating a large civic space as the setting for the opera and drew inspiration from the Lincoln and Kennedy Centers. The angular white marble and red carpeting is immediately reminiscent of the grand lobbies and concourses of these modern arts palaces right down to the ‘60s chic chandeliers that now look horribly dated.
Lighting designer Gary Marder sometimes employed backlighting on the performers to cast long shadows on the back wall of the set. The effect sometimes worked but I also found it distracting at times.
Overall, I thought Alden’s interpretation of the opera was delightful. It’s fun, a bit quirky and injected with just the right amount of humour and irreverence to make it interesting and yet he also manages to make it relevant by drawing out the operas subtext about navigating the halls of power. It worked for me.
However, it certainly didn’t work for everybody. On opening night some audience members audibly booed the director and his production team during their curtain call. As I sat applauding, an older patron who was in the midst of storming out actually turned to me and derisively scolded, “You should be booing.” I was honestly taken aback as I really failed to see what was so horribly offensive about this production.
I don’t know why some people feel the need to treat this opera like some sacred tome; until a relatively recent revival in its popularity La clemenza di Tito was pretty much considered an “also-ran” in Mozart’s canon of operas. However, opera fanatics are known to be very passionate. I’ve often said that the only two remaining performing arts where audiences still regularly “boo” are opera and professional wrestling.
My previous experience with La clemenza di Tito was Opera Atelier’s production in their 2010-11 season. While Opera Atelier’s traditional version focused on creating almost museum-like accuracy in period staging and was also a fine production I found it less engaging and ultimately less interesting than this Canadian Opera Company production. I applaud the COC for taking risks even if the risks don’t always pay off for everybody. I encourage you to see it for yourself and withhold your cheers (or jeers) until then.
- La clemenza di Tito is playing through February 22, 2013 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts (145 Queen St. W.)
- Consult the schedule for show times.
- Tickets $23 – $325
- Tickets are available in person at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts box office (145 Queen St. W.), by phone at 416-363-8231 or online at coc.ca.
- Photo of Michael Schade and Isabel Leonard by Michael Cooper