This production of La Clemenza di Tito is – well, I’m not sure exactly what I think it is, but I will definitely say it is a specimen of its time.
It was filmed in and near Rome, amid the Roman ruins, in 1980. The director is Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, and according to the booklet Ponnelle “never ran the risk of allowing cinematic realism to destroy the opera’s intended artificiality.” I am actually on board with the idea that there is a certain artificiality or strangeness to this opera, particularly for a modern audience, and that any production worth its salt is going to deal with this quality on some level. However, I will add that Ponnelle’s production makes such a point of not avoiding artificiality that things get a little weird sometimes, direction-wise. For example, during Vitellia, Sesto and Publio’s Act II trio, everyone sort of flops over from the waist down after Sesto’s first “ingrata, addio!” and later again after one of the iterations of “che crudeltà!” And during the ensemble at the end of Act I, there is a lot of literal arm-waving – or rather, standing arms out in a line. There is also a lot of circling about in this production – Vitellia walks round and round the camera during “come ti piace imponi” in a way that made me a little seasick, and you get a little hint of this again in the aforementioned Act II trio. If the goal was artificiality, the stage direction certainly achieves it.
There is also some oddness to the camera work – there are a lot of long shots that render the singers’ faces impossible to read during various points in the drama (this happens during the scene where Annio breaks the news to Servilia that Tito has chosen her for his wife, and a few other places too) and occasionally some camera placement that was unintentionally humorous, such as during “Vengo! – Aspettate! – Sesto!” where Vitellia rushes toward the camera and obscures it to black, and you think that this is going to be the switch to another shot, but you can still see in one corner of the frame the edge of Vitellia herself and part of her dress in silhouette. I am sure that Mr. Ponnelle knew what he was doing, but this seemed a little amateurish to me.
And if you are concerned that there might not be enough artificiality in the acting – well, I can reassure on this point too. The acting is quite deliberately artificial. It’s not ‘bad acting’ in the sense that the performers are trying to act naturalistically and failing – rather, it’s deliberately, well, deliberately artificial. It’s “acting” rather than acting. The whole thing operates precisely on the surface of the story. You get exactly what the libretto says you should get and nothing else. And again, sometimes there is a little bit of what I think has to be unintentional humor, particularly with Carol Neblett’s Lady Macbethy Vitellia, who has a way of swooping about sometimes with wide eyes and odd gestures and it seems like a parody of something but I’m not sure what.
But stating that this whole thing is a bit stilted and weird and leaving it at that is in a sense missing the point. I guess a better question is one, what is the cumulative effect of all these various weird things – and what does it do as far as the opera itself is concerned. (Also, whether it makes any difference at all to film an opera about Rome amid real live Roman ruins.)
(Next part here.)