Caesars and their palaces

Mozart: La Clemenza di Tito
English Touring Opera

Rimsky-Korsakov: The Tsar's Bride
Covent Garden

Reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, 6 May

The rich and powerful have mostly paid for opera, so it is perhaps not surprising that they have frequently found themselves portrayed by it. What is surprising is how few examples there are in the existing repertoire in which gods, kings and emperors are painted in an approving or sympathetic light. This trend perhaps reflects modern taste more than it does historical practice: Metastasio’s La Clemenza di Tito, for example, is determined to show its enlightened despot passing every known test for beneficent wisdom with flying colours. And yet of its forty known settings – starting with Antonio Caldara’s in 1734 and concluding with Antonio del Fante’s in 1803 – only Mozart’s retains a claim on a modern stage which has long since lost its affinity for pageantry and panegyric.

Even then, and despite the concert-going public’s general fascination with every detail of Mozart’s final year, Tito has never enjoyed a reputation comparable to that of his other mature operas. It is commonly viewed as lacking the wit of the Da Ponte operas (an admittedly near universal default), the charm of Zauberflöte, or the fire of Idomeneo. Wolfgang Hildesheimer judged the opera, hurriedly put together by Mozart in time for Leopold’s II’s coronation as King of Bohemia, to possess only “a museum-piece kind of beauty”, and he has not been widely contradicted.

James Conway’s new production of the opera testifies both to the short-sightedness of this prevalent diagnosis, as well to the signal strengths of the company he has now been running for a decade. One of the few arts organisations to see an increase in its cenral funding following the Arts Council’s recent revisions of its allocations, English Touring Opera has forged a reputation for intelligent productions which make a virtue of the limitations imposed by modest budgets and the need for flexibility. In the case of Tito, Neil Irish’s set consists of a two movable black walls, a chain curtain, and a giant plastercast mask – cleverly used to represent the idea of the Emperor’s power as something that reflects the people’s will rather than the character of Titus (Vespasian) himself – while the 1940s military and civilian costume is the kind of thing which could quickly by gleaned from a school theatre wardrobe. Yet the design is precise: it communicates the fragile balance of power in a world whose moral compass is changing faster than its inhabitants. More importantly, perhaps, and with the aid of Andrew Porter’s superb English translation, the director and singers have resisted modernization, settling instead for as direct and emotionally truthful a presentation as possible of the characters and their relationships. It would have been easy for Gillian Ramm to overplay the vain scheming of Vitellia, or for James Conway to have insisted that Mark Wilde add a layer of irony to Titus’s almost absurd evenhandedness, but such temptations are avoided. With sharp but unhurried direction from Richard Lewis, the orchestra support some wonderful singing, notably from Charlotte Stevenson as Annio and Julia Riley as Sesto.

A rather different kind of Caesar is at large in Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Tsar’s Bride (seldom seen outside Russia), in which the menacing presence of Ivan the Terrible is often felt, both in the course of events and in the music (the composer makes use of Ivan’s motif from his first opera, The Maid of Pskov), but which on stage is limited to a walk-on role – indicated by an ambiguous stage direction that calls for a “caftaned stranger” to ride by, staring coldly at the heroine. In Paul Curran’s admirable and thoroughly modern production, his first for the Royal Opera, the Tsar exchanges his caftan for a cashmere coat and his mount for a coterie of leather-clad, New Russian muscle.

The opera is based on a play by Lev Mei, one of a series (including the Maid of Pskov) which sought to enliven national history with romantic fiction. The story is a kind of blurred love triangle, with a geometry even more difficult to make out than that of La Clemenza di Tito, which nevertheless falls apart when the heroine is poisoned just after being chosen by the Tsar. Her final scene, strongly reminiscent of Tchaikovsky’s Mazeppa and Donizetti’s Lucia (Korsakov’s score was controversial for its Italianate style and structure), is affecting, a fine vehicle for the production’s star soprano, Marina Poplavskaya. Yet even here, during a denouement of force, there was something earthbound about the music and its smooth, overly languorous interpretation by Mark Elder, so often an unerring champion for less wellknown scores. There are fine performances, notably by the chorus and Ekaterina Gubanova, as Lyubasha, whose unaccompanied Act One “protyazhnaya” (an extended strophic song) turned out to be the evening’s musical highlight, immediately stilling the stage-audience of rambunctious FSB agents with its old-world nobility. Curran’s production makes clever use of the Western prejudice in favour of certain Russian sterotypes, in which effort he is assisted by Kevin Knight’s lavish sets, designed to allow unrestricted views to the upper seats and including a roof-top terrace complete with swimming pool; the hero Lïkov, sung by Dmytro Popov, briefly considers diving into the string section before returning to his premature engagement celebrations. The air of seedy splendour takes one right to the heart of Curran’s conception.

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