La Clemenza di Tito, Grand Theatre, Leeds


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The Independent Culture

Which is Mozart’s last opera? Most people would say The Magic Flute, and it was indeed the last to be staged in his lifetime.

But the Flute was nearly complete when Mozart turned to composing the opera he had been commissioned to produce for the coronation of the Austrian emperor, Leopold, as King of Bohemia in Prague on September 6, 1791. This was La Clemenza di Tito.

Maybe if it were generally known as Mozart’s last opera, it would get the attention it deserves. True, it can sometimes come across as a rather old-fashioned work, a slow-paced opera seria on the traditional theme of what makes a good ruler. But the supreme merit of John Fulljames’s new production for Opera North, and of the dramatic performances given by his cast of six excellent singers, is to bring out the tense, heart-rending personal drama at the heart of the work.

The flame-haired Vitellia of Annemarie Kremer (who gave us a powerful Norma in Leeds just a year ago) wants her devoted lover Sesto (Helen Lepalaan) to murder the emperor Tito (Paul Nilon) because she believes he has usurped her throne and refuses to marry her. Sesto is Tito’s friend and is torn by conflicting loyalties. But he does Vitellia’s bidding. The plot fails, and the climax of the drama is reached in the confrontation in Act Two between Sesto and Tito in which Sesto refuses to betray Vitellia. Finally Vitellia confesses, and all ends more or less happily, although Tito remains torn between outrage at the treachery of his associates and his firm commitment to mercy rather than revenge. Fulljames’s staging and the committed performances of the three principals sustain the intensity of the drama.

The three lesser roles are also well taken. Kathryn Rudge makes a strong impression as Annio, and the sublime duet with Servilia (Fflur Wyn) is beautifully staged and sung. Henry Waddington, who brings presence and character to every role he takes, is a formidable Publio.

The chorus remained offstage throughout, an economical move which diminished the public dimension of the drama. The orchestra played well under Douglas Boyd, and the clarinettist, Colin Honour, got a deserved solo bow for his eloquent obligatos in two major arias. The production made extensive use of semi-abstract architectural projections, which were effective enough, but if I were Opera North I would impose a total ban on giant projections of singers’ faces. After Faust, and, more briefly, here, we have had more than enough.

20, 22 February (0844 848 2700); then touring to Newcastle, Belfast, Salford and Nottingham (