Thursday, 24 March 2011

English Touring Opera at the Northcott Theatre "La Clemenza Di Tito" (Update)

Philip Spendley as Publius, Rhona McKail as Servilia
Julia Riley as Sextus, Mark Wilde as Titus
Gillian Ramm as Vitellia and Charlotte Stephenson as Annius
This production was simply fabulous - in every way.  This English version of Mozart's classic (which was originally in Italian) was a visual and auditory feast, absolutely rivetting, amazing and emotionally draining from the very first moment.  All of the actors were outstanding - including the extras, many of whom are starring in other operas this week.  (Note Greg Tassell in the grey overcoat!)

The two main protagonists were Gillian Ramm as Vitellia, daughter of the deposed former ruler of Rome, Vitellius, and Mark Wilde as Titus, son of the new ruler Vespasian, and now ruler himself.  These two characters were rarely together, but between them they wove a compelling tale of miscommunication.  Despite the 'clemency' of Titus, Vitellia still tries to regain power by inciting violence.  Her devoted and misguided helper is an army officer called Sextus who, confusingly, is played by soprano Julia Riley.  His friend and fellow officer Annius is also played by a woman, mezzo soprano Charlotte Stephenson.  At the première in Prague in 1791 Sextus was played by male soprano castrato Domenico Bedini.  Strangely, even on that occasion, Annius was played by a woman, mezzo soprano Carolina Perini.

The female/male characters were not the only confusing aspect of this production.  Mozart wrote the opera in honour of the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II whose coronation was in 1791.  The Emperor Titus, with whom Leopold was being compared, reigned from 79-81 AD.  This production however, was set in the 1930s.  This came as a surprise, as the publicity photos show the performers in what appears to be Elizabethan costume (see below).  The setting was perfect, however.  Using a relatively small chorus the crowd scenes evoked the feel of the familiar newsreel images of the pre-war era, which was very apt.  Although the ruler in Rome at that time would have been Benito Mussolini, there was no suggestion that the main character, Titus, bore any resemblance to the fascist dictator (although the real Emperor Titus probably did).

The singing was crystal clear throughout (and in English) so this opera was as easy to follow as a modern play.  Mark Wilde's exposition of Titus' reasoning was a masterpiece of semantics.  Those who slander him in error are blameless.  If their accusations are true he admits them.  If they slander him maliciously he forgives them.  Gillian Ramm is equally compelling in her conviction that intrigue and armed insurrection are the only reliable means of achieving her aims.  By convincing the hapless Sextus to betray his loving friend Titus - in return for her rather questionable love - she almost destroys their friendship and, as far as she is aware, makes Sextus liable to execution for treason.  Although it is only mentioned in passing, the armed uprising, which Sextus is persuaded to instigate, also involves the destruction of Rome, and it is further implied that civilians die in the chaos.

Vitellia is oblivious to these trivial details, clearly a very selfish and thoughtless person.  However, Gillian Ramm's portrayal is so realistic she actually evokes sympathy and even pity.  Rather than cruel and abusive, she appears a determined and persuasive woman who, sadly, is not all that bright and does not know which side her bread is buttered.

The plot is beautifully constructed to leave Titus in the quandary of wanting to forgive Sextus but unable to understand his motives.  (Sextus is determined not to implicate Vitellia.)  This scene is incredibly moving.  In the Northcott auditorium you could hear a pin drop.  When Titus pleads with Sextus to give him some  explanation which will allow him to be forgiven, his voice drops to a whisper.  Mark Wilde's whisper was, however, clearly audible right to the back of the audience.  Marvellous singing.

Regardless of the final outcome (you have to see the opera to find that out) the emotional intensity leading up to that crucial point was deeply moving, even for those who know the story already.  An amazing performance by the entire cast.  The scenery and costumes, though much less ostentatious than they might have been, are beautifully detailed and stunning, and the lighting, in true Northcott style, brought out every detail perfectly.

Many thanks to the English Touring Opera for bringing this wonderful production to Exeter.  Thanks also to Exeter University without whom the Northcott Theatre, and the opportunity to see wonderful outfits like the ETO, might have been lost.

If you did not see this production it may still be possible to get tickets for the repeat performance on Saturday.

Meanwhile, tonight, English Touring Opera are repeating their double bill of opera comprising Puccini's 'Il Tabarro' and 'Gianni Schicchi' - which were also performed last night (watch this space for a detailed account).  Don't miss it if you can help it!

English Touring Opera
Northcott Theatre Exeter
Tue-Sat 22-26 March

Tuesday 7pm:
Tobias Picker: Roald Dahl's
'Fantastic Mr Fox'
Wed&Sat 7.30pn:
Mozart: 'La Clemenza di Tito'
Thu&Fri 7.30pm:
Puccini: 'Il Tabarro'
        & 'Gianni Schicchi'
Tickets: £17-£30
(concessions 1/2 price)
Box: 493493

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