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February 12, 2014 6:03 pm
With her vast yellow skirts and Marge Simpson wig, Vitellia looks more like a toilet roll holder doll than a woman spurned. It is hard to follow the logic behind the tawdry faux-baroque aesthetic of Victoria Behr’s costumes, but that is only one of the problems with the Bavarian State Opera’s new La clemenza di Tito.
For his debut at Munich’s National Theatre, theatre director Jan Bosse has served up a highly stylised version of Mozart’s final opera seria. Within the constraints of an old-fashioned form, Mozart wrote music in which the passionate humanity of his characters is all the more overwhelming for its reserve. It is a piece about power and politics, love and betrayal, clemency and loneliness. For this production, the Munich house has gone out on a limb, hiring a director with limited opera experience and a young cast.
This is also Kirill Petrenko’s first Mozart opera in his new position as chief conductor – one gamble that was always going to pay off. Petrenko’s track record in Mozart is impeccable, and his approach to Clemenza is all you could wish for – transparent, elegant, stylish, polished, taut, profound and beautifully structured. With a well-researched sense of the correct tempi, Petrenko keeps the rhythm of the dance in his pacing and a sense of joy within sadness, giving the evening a striking mix of nobility, melancholy and exultation.
His cast does not quite match his orchestra in terms of excellence. Kristine Opolais is an odd choice for the part of Vitellia, with none of the ripeness and sensual lower register you would expect in the part. She compensates with impressive high coloratura and considerable poise, but the low notes are often simply not there. Tara Erraught is more comfortable in the role of Sesto, with a final aria that is genuinely heart-rending; Hanna-Elisabeth Müller and Angela Brower sing with expressive ease as Servillia and Annio. Toby Spence brings musical intelligence and grace to the title role, and wins considerable support from the audience, despite the fact that he is clearly still battling the impact of recent health problems.
Bosse’s production is awkward to the point of unwitting parody. As if Behr’s cumbersome costumes were not hindrance enough, Stéphane Laimé’s sets require the singers to clamber constantly around the large stairs of an amphitheatre, while Bibi Abel’s videos function as distracting wallpaper. Bosse neither sheds light on individual motivations nor makes a significant statement. In all, it is a production best enjoyed with eyes closed.
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