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As mentioned, this DVD was filmed amid real Roman ruins in Rome. And it’s a movie of an opera, not a DVD of a performance – the action moves around several different areas, none of which is a stage as such. (I think the audio and the video were recorded separately, too. For one thing, it doesn’t sound as if it’s being performed outside. For another, you can see little blips in the synching here and there. And finally, that would have to be a mighty mobile orchestra that maestro Levine was conducting.)
The thing about ruins, though, is that they are precisely that – ruins. This story is set in Rome, and there is an obvious connection to Rome throughout. At various points the performers look at or address Roman statues; there are plenty of arches and gateways and glimpses of the Colosseum. At the same time, these are obviously ruins. The bricks are crumbling and the various bits of masonry are overgrown with grass. It seems that the goal here is to point the audience toward the anachronism of the opera in two senses. One, it’s an eighteenth-century opera about ancient Rome. Two, that eighteenth-century opera is also a fair distance from the present. The costumes reinforce both these points about anachronism – they’re basically eighteenth-century-themed: gray wigs and ponytails and 18thc-style suits for the men, fancy dresses and big hair for the women (it was 1980, which means that the big hair was seriously Big Hair, particularly for Vitellia, whose coiffure is borderline frightening by Act II) and robes and masks for the chorus, who appear only sometimes, masked so that they are hardly distinguishable from all the real statues, but most often when you hear them you don’t see them, e.g. in the ‘Rome is burning!’ scene at the end of Act I.
The booklet claims that this production was groundbreaking for its day. I regard most such claims made by DVD booklets with a certain amount of skepticism, because if you spend your time listening to booklets you’ll end up believing all kinds of crazy things, but this one certainly seems original, in a kind of ’embrace the weird’ sort of way which works with La Clemenza di Tito.
One of the other things I noticed about this, in terms of the production and the filming, is the way the camera puts the viewer in a very un-audience like place. You get circled by Vitellia; you see, here and there, through Tito’s eyes, or Sesto’s, and the places in which the action happens are more physically complex than an operatic stage. So the way it’s filmed puts you literally in the work in a way audience members are never ‘in’ the performance when it’s in a theater (I’m put in mind of that top-of-the-stairs camera in the DVD of Guth’s Le Nozze di Figaro, although that was a little bit different in terms of what you saw). But at the same time, what you’re ‘in’ is a very formal, stylized performance that is almost designed to push you away. You’re in there following everyone about and seeing things from all different directions, but emotionally it’s not a performance designed to draw you into the characters’ motives and emotions. There’s a kind of tension there between how you’re seeing the opera and the type of performance of it that you’re seeing. Which is kind of the point, I suppose – the goal of the production seems to be both to highlight the opera’s unfamiliarity (apparently it was performed far less often in 1980 than it is now?) and push you into it all the same. A bit like that kabuki-themed version of Mitridate, rè di Ponto.
Next – on to what this production actually sounds like!
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