I realized the other day that I had never sat down and collected my thoughts about this production of La Clemenza di Tito. I’ve seen it many times. And I am fairly sure that I am not the only one. Some of us love this production because we love Dorothea Röschmann’s voice and think that Kasarova is kind of awesome too. Others of us love this production because Vesselina Kasarova is the best thing ever and hey, the soprano ain’t bad neither. Still others of us are made of stone and like it merely because it’s a very good production of one of the finest operas ever written.
So, I will attempt to explain this production as if to someone who had never seen it.
La Clemenza di Tito is an opera seria set in the late first century AD, during the reign of the emperor Titus, or Tito in Italian. Tito is a kindly sort. But there is a problem. The problem’s name is Vitellia.
Vitellia has a massive sense of entitlement, a chip on her shoulder the size of Gaul, and a claim to the imperial throne. Tito’s father stole the throne from her father — or so she says. It was one of those things to which the Roman empire was prone: a series of bids for the purple, a series of murders and military revolts, and a series of emperors of which Vitellia’s father Vitellius was one for about three months before losing to Tito’s father Vespasian. Vitellius, Vespasian and Titus were real historical figures; Vitellia is merely an intriguing possibility. Anyway. Vitellia is set on marrying Tito or, if that fails, killing him.
Vitellia has a lover, Sesto. Sesto and Tito are friends. Sesto also has a best friend named Annio and a sister named Servilia, and I probably do not need to recount the whole story in detail — suffice it to say that Sesto has a rough time of it. His emperor wants to marry his sister, but so does his friend Annio; his sister wants to marry Annio and definitely not the emperor unless she absolutely has to; Vitellia wants Sesto to raise an insurrection to depose Tito, on which plan Sesto is none too keen; Tito changes his mind and decides to marry Vitellia . . . and well, Rome is on fire for a few hours, and Sesto and Tito are never really friends again after that, but it all sort of works itself out in the end.
This production of Clemenza is set in what might be a partially remodeled parking garage. There are three floors of it, centered around a marble-walled room that contains a grim-looking bed, a wardrobe and sometimes Tito. There are pillars and stairways and doors, but no windows. Indeed, there is no real indication of which way ‘out’ is — if there is even an ‘out’ to begin with. The pillars and stairs break up most of the area of the stage into much smaller regions, so that the effect is both imposing and a little claustrophobic. Rome is a maze, or a prison, or both.
The costumes are modern suits for Sesto and Annio, a shirt/skirt combination for both Tito and his minister Publio, a tanktop and denim skirt for Servilia, and — well, Vitellia is mostly dressed most of the time.
The following clip of the opening scene of the opera will illustrate most of what I have just said:
There are some odd aspects to this production. The boys who look as if they’re about to be eaten by the chorus at the end, for example. And there are some leaps from naturalistic action into the more symbolic, as in “non più di fori” during which Vitellia paints herself gray. The gray makes sense, given that it makes Vitellia look dead and that’s pretty much how she feels at that point in the story. The row of blond boys laid out on tables during the final chorus I’m still working on, interpretively.
But this is one of those productions that is so convincing emotionally that you don’t even really register the cannibalism.
So, tomorrow: on to the music!