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La Clemenza di Tito, in the legendary staging by Willy Decker, is currently at the Opera of Paris with two casts. At the première there were Ramón Vargas, Amanda Majeski, Valentina Naforniţa, Stéphanie d’Oustrac, Antoinette Dennefeld and Marko Mimica
What is the price of power? For those who own it, it is either an unexpected burden or a source of envy and enmity, for those who covet it, it is a frustration that can lead to extreme actions.
In his fourth opera seria after Mitridate, Lucio Silla and Idomeneo, Mozart tells us the story of the Roman Emperor Tito Vespasiano and his attempt to be respected and loved not through force or fear, but through his kindness.
Obviously, this becomes very complicated and even dangerous: a conspiracy is carried behind his back by his most unsuspected relatives and his good will is put to the test.
A twenty-year old staging, always ravishing and full of significance
It is the issue of power and forgiveness that lies at the heart of Willy Decker’s staging, created at the Opera Garnier in 1997. Their fragility and transitory aspect are underlined by a decoration in which stone is omnipresent, both as a material waiting to be sculpted in order to exalt a glorious and monumental power and as a matter destined to decay over time, leaving nothing but ruins.
A skewed frame and some beautiful painted curtains structure the scenography: On the first canvas, where the colours remind us of Chagall’s painting on the ceiling of the opera house (but also of Kandinsky and Twombly), the main characters are depicted around the crown of Titus. The second one sees a heart torn apart by a dagger, and on the last one the emperor is alone in a bloodbath, in general indifference.
A lonely emperor
A large crown is placed on Tito Vespasiano’s head. His greatest desire is to be loved by his people (Romani, unico oggetto è de’ voti di Tito il vostro amore) and for that reason he decides to be a just and merciful ruler.
But alas, he will have to face human flaws and weaknesses: « È pur di chi regna infelice il destino! A noi si nega ciò che a’ più bassi è dato « , he says.
An expression of suffering drawn on his face, Ramón Vargas embodies compellingly this distressed ruler. His gestures, his breathing and the tone of his voice evoke the humanity of this tortured character. Despite his rather pushed vocal production and some tune concerns in certain vocalises, the Mexican tenor nevertheless offers us some very moving moments as during the Del più sublime soglio, where he evokes his existential torments.
The tragedy of love and manipulation
Sesto throws himself at Vitellia’s feet, grabs the folds of her dress and asks her to stay. Madly in love, he tells her he’ll do anything for her. The princess, daughter of the dismissed emperor, immediately takes advantage of him, to take over the crown.
In order to deceive her suitor, Vitellia uses emotional blackmail: (Eppure non hai cor d’acquistarmi […] Deh se piacer mi vuoi, Lascia i sospetti tuoi […] Già ti credea; già mi piacevi e, quasi, cominciavo ad amarti) she seduces him, tricks him into believing in a mutual love, then moves away from him, leaving him alone and desperate on a rock.
Only in the end, she will become aware of her mistake and will regret hurting a man who loved her so much and was ready to die for her (Mi laceran il core, rimorso, orror, spavento! Quel che nell’alma io sento Di duol morir mi fa…).
An expressive and committed cast
Helped by the change of clothes and the symbolism of colours – from the dark red of conspiracy and betrayal, to the black of mourning and the white of repentance – the soprano Amanda Majeski succeeds in portraying the psychological development of Vitellia in a true and sincere way.
If, at the very beginning, she is plaintive and hypocritical, in the second act she becomes passionate and authentic. Her superb lirico-spinto voice is flawless, the timbre is crystal clear and warm in treble, while broad and dramatic in the lower register, her legato smooth and consistent.
The director plays on the contrast between the coldness and determination of the princess and the fragility and reluctance of the young patrician, very well conveyed by the two singers.
Stéphanie d’Oustrac incarnates a Sesto tortured by the choice between love and loyalty. The voice of the mezzo-soprano fills the room, round and sound, and her Italian is perfectly pronounced. Her very committed interpretation, is a little overstated, which makes difficult to feel empathy for this fragile and pathetic character who, with his eyes literally blindfolded, is led by the beautiful and ruthless Vitellia (Parto, parto, ma tu ben mio, Come ti piace imponi: Regola i moti miei. Il mio destin tu sei, Tutto farò per te).
Very laid-back and realistic is the Servilia by Valentina Naforniţa, who moves around in her yellow dress, in a sophisticated and delicate way. The soprano is very convincing and moving in her timid refusal to marry Titus, what a pity for the few inaccuracies in the vocalises of the second act.
Her male counterpart, the kind and sincere Annio, is embodied with ease by Antoinette Dennefeld, who conquered us by the clarity and richness of her timbre and her light emission, just like the interesting Publio by Marko Mimica.
In the pit, Dan Ettinger’s direction is dynamic and expressive, enhancing the contrast between the most introspective moments and the explosion of the voices, the percussions and the winds.
Refined and timeless aesthetics
The strength of this production, which contributes to its atemporal character, is its aesthetics based on the symbolism of colours and on the contrasts, well conveyed by the powerful lights of Hans Toelstede.
The different characters evolve around the cold-coloured scenery of stone and marble, imagined by John Macfarlane, each in their own colourful clothes. The radiant yellow of goodness and simplicity is associated with Servilia and Annio, the purity of the white goes with Titus and, in the last act, with a repented Vitellia. The weak Sesto is in grey, in contrast with the sharper colours of Vitellia’s dresses. One will notice the beautiful costumes of the members of the Court in black and white, Gothic style, and their fascinating hairstyles cut like boxwood.