Saturday, 6 March 2010

La Clemeza di Tito, Quintessential Opera

Another off-the beaten track performance of intermittently dusty operatic repertoire, another cast of good, young workaday singers. In fact this cast proved to fulfil the really rather impressive claims of the programme: the majority seem to be working hard in the mezzanine of singing work where covering roles in the top tier of companies is the next step after considerable experience as provincial principals and major house choruses (Glyndebourne seems to be their common experience).

La Clemenza is a difficult opera. It's a pageantry drama - roughly equivalent to latterday courtroom drama - there's not a lot one can stage, semi- or otherwise. The cast performed in modern-but-appropriate dress (Verena Gunz' Sesto and Ciara Hendrick's Annio literally in trousered role) with a chorus (uncredited, but one assumes the Unitarian Chapel's resident choir) on the opposite side of the stage to Edmund Connolly, directing the music from the piano.

Clearly this was a performance that would rely very heavily on a uniformly high level of singing and indeed, this is what made the evening successful. Leading from the front was Paul Hopwood's eponymous Cesare Tito, consistent, warm and ringing in a well-blended, well projected manner, dismissing the abject acoustics of the chapel with an imperiousness equal to his character. Strident or soft, his singing exhibited confidence and consistency that encouraged and was met with the same throughout the cast.

That's not to say that the other five singers simply gave us more of the same. Part of the pleasure of pared down performances such as this is being able to concentrate on the particularities that allow each to create their own character-space. Lisa Wilson had Vitellia's coloratura under such control that she could manipulate it from scheming to seductive, coyly blowing Sesto's fringe with a well-placed consonant ('aletta') at will. Verena Gunz's golden mezzo-soprano is a strong, plangent instrument, affectingly used. Equally luxuriant, Ciara Hendrick's Annio was a study in deceptive ease, in a discreet performance of lovely, quiet, present singing. Torna di Tito was worth waiting for. Stephanie Bodsworth's gilded her Servilia with generous tone to a particularly pleasing top - again, the shortcomings of the building were exposed. Publio is a more functional role, although consequently oft-used in what I think of as the best music in this opera, the ensembles. Paul Sheehan made more of Publio's sole aria than the score deserves, demonstrating that his rigour wasn't simply channelling itself into highly professional diction and acting.

The music was given a good outing here, with the chorus well-drilled (by Duncan Aspden) and Edmund Connolly making all the right decisions in tempi and pacing at the keyboard. Whilst the basic staging worked perfectly well I felt that this group might have benefitted from a dedicated director just to tease out the drama to stand alongside the singing. Still this was a good way to hear the opera and profoundly encouraging indication of the state of domestic operatic performance.

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