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La clemenza di Tito: An opera with plenty of political machination – but Sir Bob Neill finds the production at odds with Mozart’s original message

Emily D'Angelo as Sextus in La Clemenza di Tito | The Royal Opera ©2021 ROH. Photograph by Clive Barda

3 min read

Perhaps the most significant thing about this run of performances of Mozart’s late work is that they happened at all, and the producers are to be lauded for that alone.

The Royal Opera is the first of our major companies to re-open its doors, albeit with a much-reduced audience – and social distancing constraints upon staging and rehearsal arrangements presented additional challenges for production team and cast alike. Nonetheless, proof that it can be done.

Welcome too is the decision to live-stream this and other productions until more normal arrangements are restored. I very much hope that this will, in future, become a permanent practice for all our publicly funded companies. Of course it cannot replace the magic of live performance, but it can bring opera to wider audiences, both for those who cannot afford to get to London regularly, as well as to those new to the genre, particularly younger people, who consume so much of their entertainment online.

Unfortunately, I cannot give such a warm welcome to Richard Jones’ production. Mozart wrote the piece, allegedly in 18 days, whist in the middle of composing The Magic Flute, on a commission to celebrate the coronation of the Emperor Leopold II (who, unlike his late brother Francis, was both disinterested in music and reactionary) as King of Bohemia. The libretto, based on Metastasio, was intended as a celebration of monarchical benevolence; a bit ironic as Leopold had just rescinded a more liberal constitution granted by Francis. Nonetheless it contains some of Mozart’s finest and most noble music, sentiments which Jones almost entirely ignores. His is a consistently cynical view, which anyone in the political world will readily recognise but is at odds with the message that comes from the music itself.

If Jones wants to dispel any suggestion that politics is glamourous, his setting succeeds in that

The pre-publicity described this as a “portrayal of a society threatened by change, control and intrigue,” and there is certainly plenty of political machination in the story. If Jones wants to dispel any suggestion that politics is glamorous, his setting succeeds in that. It is vaguely mid-twentieth century drab, a capital that looks like a railway station waiting room, costumes that Kim Jong-il’s  tailor would look down his nose at, and some bizarre incongruities: why, for example, does Titus’ best friend Sextus (Emily D’Angelo) spend the whole time dressed in football gear? I can’t say that it shed any great new light on the piece for me.

A shame, because Mark Wrigglesworth gets fine playing from the orchestra and there is much fine singing. Nicole Chevalier makes a striking debut as the anti-heroine Vitellia (not helped by having to act like Lady Macbeth on steroids) and Edgaras Montvidas captures the deeper conflicts behind Titus’ benevolence. But the best singing comes from Angela Brower as Annius.  Anyone who has experienced meetings of the 1922 Committee or the PLP will recognise Titus’ faithful (or not?) fixer Publius and senatorial sidekicks.  Nothing like an escape from the day job…

Sir Bob Neill is Conservative MP for Bromley and Chislehurst and chair of the Opera APPG

La clemenza di Tito is directed by Richard Jones
Broadcast: Royal Opera House livestream


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