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It took English National Opera over half a century to stage La clemenza di Tito. This Mozart opera has never been very popular, mainly because its Roman Empire characters can come across like marble statues, reluctant to behave like human beings.

Performing the opera in English underlines how bald the libretto is, but in other respects ENO’s staging vindicates the work as a living, breathing work of the theatre.

This is the first revival of David McVicar’s production, first seen in 2005. The sets are coolly formal, but within them McVicar turns up the heat to maximum – the conflagration when Sesto sets the Capitol alight is nothing compared with the inner fires motivating these people.

At Thursday’s performance last week, the central two roles could hardly be surpassed. Half-crazed, Emma Bell’s Vitellia shows what happens when a character in opera seria goes off the rails and hurtles into a formal, historical plot, tearing up the ground the other characters thought they were standing on. Bell sang fearlessly, as if careless of the wild extremes the vocal part inhabits.

As Sesto, the young man who is under her spell, Alice Coote makes a perfectly chosen counterpart. Composed, resourceful, ever looking inwards, she uses her magnificent mezzo voice to maximum effect, varying its colours across a wide spectrum as she reveals the conscience at the heart of Sesto’s good character.

Paul Nilon has returned as a Tito who sings cleanly, but without the ideal nobility of tone. Sarah-Jane Davies, hot from her appearance in Cardiff Singer of the World, was striking as Servilia, alongside Anne Marie Gibbons as Annio and a notably strong Publio from Andrew Foster-Williams. Edward Gardner matched the production’s flaming energy from the pit. There are two further performances, worth catching.
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