Tito and Publio. Photo: Michael Cooper
Reviewed by James Karas
What the hell is going on?
This was the question that started whirling around my mind shortly after the stage lights went on for the Canadian Opera Company’s production of La Celemenza di Tito.
The set consists of a grey wall, a couple of concrete benches and a trashcan. The libretto is ostensibly about the Roman Emperor Titus (79-81 A.D.) but an opera composed in 1791 can be set anywhere.
We are in Vitellia’s apartment. She is the daughter of a deposed emperor and is joined by Sesto, a Roma patrician. He is wearing a short skirt and looks a bit ridiculous but there is worse to come. The lights come from the left and we have difficulty seeing their faces. They hug the wall, move around incongruously and give us no clue as to where we are. She wants Sesto to send Emperor Tito to Hades.
A bit later, Annio, another patrician, follows his shadow onto the scene. He is a diminutive geek with glasses and too much energy. He asks Sesto for his sister Servilia’s hand in marriage. Instead of saying I would not give you my pet monkey you little creep, Sesto says it’s a great idea.
We then meet Publio, the captain of the Guard, in full Roma legionnaire regalia (red-plumed helmet, short skirt – right out of a bad Hollywood movie) and we guess we are in Ancient Rome. The chorus joins us in the meantime and they are wearing white kerchiefs, masks and clothes that look as if they were pilfered from a Goodwill box.
Did I mention the Emperor rushing on stage in his purple pajamas and a large blanket that he has difficulty handling?
What the hell is going on?
This Clemenza is a production of Chicago Opera Theater. The opera has not been performed by the COC since 1990 and all one can say is that it was high time. It is directed by Christopher Alden with Set Designs by Andrew Cavanaugh Holland and Costumes by Terese Wadden.
Synopsis: Vitellia is bitchy and bossy; Annio is a diminutive geek on drugs who is in need of valium. He does his stretching exercises as if he is in the gym. Sesto looks like a goof and Publio is a clown who sweeps the floor with the plumes on his helmet. Tito is not much better.
Eureka! This is the Peanuts version of La Clemenza di Tito.
Yes, Charlie Brown and the gang met in a schoolyard, found the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra and Chorus conducted by David Cohen and decided to put on an opera seria by Mozart. They can engage in all kinds of tomfoolery on stage. They can react anyway they like to each other. They all can do whatever they feel like and there is no rational action and reaction. If Tito and Sesto feel like lying under the blanket, so be it.
Want more? When Sesto is condemned to death by the senate and the Emperor is asked to sign the execution warrant, he is given a red phone to call it in. The phone has a cord – we have not advanced to cordless yet.
And oh yes this is still an opera and there is singing. La Clemenza has some beautiful arias and duets and the silliness on stage need not detract from it. Think again. Alden and Cohen have chosen a choppy type of delivery that is less than congenial to the ear much of the time. True, the singing does break through but not all the time.
The night I saw the opera (February 7, 2013), soprano Isabel Leonard was indisposed and the role of Sesto was sung by mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta. She was scheduled to sing Annio but was replaced in that role by Sasha Djihanian. Keri Alkema had a cold but still sang the role of Vitellia.
The singers are rarely allowed to linger on any notes, satisfactory vibrato is rarely achieved and what comes out may be recognizable Mozart but I felt like cringing far too often. The singing was probably better than it sounded but I would have preferred the opposite.
Mireille Asselin as Servilia is the least affected singer and character in the production and she sings beautifully. But hers is a relatively minor role. Publio is played for comedy but fails to produce much laughter. He is a stentorian dummy who can sing better than he was allowed to do. As the Captain of the Guard, he may explain why the Roman Empire fell.
Michael Schade is a first-rate tenor but the foolish acting that he had to perform and the choppy style of singing left him limited scope. Still he managed some pleasing sounds despite what he had to do.
The same can be said of Vitellia, Sesto and especially Annio who had much more difficulty coming through the horseplay.
La Clemenza was Mozart’s last or almost last opera composed near the end of his life when he was ill and broke. It has its shortcomings but it can still provide an enjoyable night at the opera. I am not sure what Alden was triying to achieve, but what i got was confusion, consternation and … what the hell went on?____
La Clemenza di Tito by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart opened on February 3 and will be performed eight times until February 22, 2013 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel: 416-363-6671. www.coc.ca