I have heard La Clemenza di Tito so many times that listening to it feels like a variety of introspection – my reaction to any given performance is not simply a reaction to that performance, but also to all the other performances that I have heard. Also, it strikes me that either the advantage or the disadvantage to constant access to high-quality performances via DVD and the internet, like this one from Brussels, is that you rarely hear a truly bad rendition of anything. Sometimes one (by ‘one’ I mean ‘me’) picks nits about the interpretation, or takes issue with tempos, but I don’t actually think I’ve ever seen what I would call a truly sub-par performance of this opera.
This one is certainly better than par. (Whatever par would be. What’s the pass/fail scale for opera seria?) The production, directed by Ivo van Hove, puts the action in what looks like a glossy high-end hotel suite. Or at least the bedroom part of it. There is a free-standing mirror (Vitellia writes “morte” on it during “non più di fiori”), a big bed, and other assorted bits of furniture, including a chaise longue for Sesto to flop on, a bench, and a desk at which a motionless Tito (Kurt Streit) sits as the opera opens. There is also a screen up on the wall in the back on which we see projections of various things. At the beginning, it’s Tito’s face. Later in the opera we see views from above that highlight items on the floor, e.g. the knife that Vitellia gives Sesto or things that comment in some way on what is taking place (a skull during Sesto’s “deh conservate o dei”) or sometimes both at once. Just before the aforementioned skull moment, when Sesto is feeling particularly conflicted, we see two images of him on the screen, facing in opposite directions. (It reminded me a bit of that part in the Lord of the Rings movie where Gollum/Smeagol is arguing with himself over whether to betray Frodo or not; the camera there kept swapping angles to emphasize Gollum’s internal conflict. There is no doubt in my mind that this was precisely the reference that the director of this opera was trying to evoke.)
So anyway, there’s this screen. It’s not always on, but it’s in operation for all of the big moments. The last thing we see at the end of the opera is Tito’s face on it, staring up into the camera.
But back to the beginning. During the overture, Tito is sitting frozen at the desk stage left and Vitellia (Veronique Gens) and Sesto (Anna Bonitatibus) enter separately, looking unhappy and annoyed. Toward the end of the overture, a group of staff (given the modern hotel-like quality of the staging ‘servants’ seems like the wrong word) march in and un-do the room – they set covered room service trays on the floor, pull apart and mess up the two halves of the bed, neatly overturn a chair, and so on. One of them hands Vitellia a bouquet of flowers. It’s as though the room is being returned to its state at some previous moment in time – at which point the story can then begin.
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