Review: La clemenza di Tito

First published in The Herald on 20 January, 2014

La Clemenza di Tito
Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow

Mozart’s last opera is an awkward beast. It was composed on speedy commission for the coronation of a king (Leopold of Bohemia) and wears its moral message on its sleeve: Tito is a benevolent ruler whose knack for granting clemency – the ‘clemenza’ of the title – sees him ride out disaster through sheer kingly goodness. Compared to Mozart’s great operas the plot is staid, the characters flimsy and the musical forms old-fashioned. It’s a challenge for any opera company to bring it to life.

What carries this student production is its restraint. The staging is slick: huge block letters (modern sans serifs) set the scene and provide neat shifts in spacing and atmosphere. Director Ashley Dean doesn’t try to spice up the drama with gimmicks; instead he moves the cast in stark, striking poses that look good and leave them room to sing. Likewise conductor Tim Dean focuses on drawing graceful lines rather than fancy flourishes from the score.

The problem is that the vocal performances don’t always hold up. The plot’s scheming happens in Act I; when Act II turns introspective the drama can sag without singers of considerable nuance. Some trimming and swifter pacing would help this production along, as would more emotional tension from individual performances. Luperci de Souza makes a noble Tito; the Brazilian tenor has an airy, supple timbre and real gravitas on stage. Icelandic soprano Ragnheidur Oladottir is the bitter Vitellia, beautifully full-voiced but a little rigid. Hazel McBain’s Servilia is vocally willowy and agile; as Sesto, Ayaka Tanimoto captures a reserved dignity but needs more bite. Debora Ruiz-Kordova’s Annio is soft-timbred and full of pathos. The chorus makes excellent work of their brief contributions.