No clemency for a second-rate 'Tito'

La Clemenza Di Tito | Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
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The Independent Culture

If you are not going to stage an opera, there has to be some very good reason for doing a concert performance, especially at a great festival that sees the best of everything. In the case of Chausson's Le roi Arthus, for example, the justification was the rarity of the work and the infrequency of performances. But Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito is a familiar piece. There can be no excuse for a concert version with second-rate singers, a local orchestra and the most boring conductor this side of the Milky Way.

If you are not going to stage an opera, there has to be some very good reason for doing a concert performance, especially at a great festival that sees the best of everything. In the case of Chausson's Le roi Arthus, for example, the justification was the rarity of the work and the infrequency of performances. But Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito is a familiar piece. There can be no excuse for a concert version with second-rate singers, a local orchestra and the most boring conductor this side of the Milky Way.

Admittedly, the soloists were not all second-rate, but even the first-rate ones seemed ill at ease. The best was Lisa Milne as Servilia; her sweet lyric voice overcame the moralistic text of "S'altro che lacrime", and the duet, "Più che ascolto", with Annio (a rather uniform but handsome Katija Dragojevic) was beautiful.

In less gloomy circumstances, Geraldine McGreevy might have been a distinguished Vitellia; her recitative was smooth and natural, and she had excellent Italian. However, she lacked the fire for this perverse, angry part, though she had plenty of fluent, pearly roulades. In "Non più di fiori" she sang with a lovely sotto voce, but her soft tones evidently instilled panic into the basset horn player, who murmured inaudibly and spoilt this obbligato showpiece.

That fine artist Neal Davies made a virile, heartfelt Publio, the characterisation coming from the quality of voice, not from squalid actors' tricks. There were, however, plenty of squalid tricks to be observed elsewhere. Tenor parts in opera seria are hard to cast, because they need brilliant fioriture as well as a powerful ring. Johannes Chum, as Tito, had neither quality. The voice was husky and weak, the delivery conversational. His coloratura induced a feeling of seasickness.

But these old operas depend chiefly on the "primo uomo", in this case Sesto, sung by Magdalena Kozena. This artist has the natural ingredients of a fine voice, but lacks almost everything else. There seemed to be no real technique, no control, no taste, no ear. She is so concerned to "speak" the words expressively that some are not really sung at all. The tone is rough and cold, the rhythm squashy, and "Deh per questo istante solo" was frankly disagreeable.

The conductor, Harry Bicket, had two tempos, slow jog-trot and quick jog-trot. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra were clearly not enjoying themselves, and the SCO Chorus sounded soggy. The scene was set at the start when the sponsors, with execrable manners, clattered into their seats throughout the overture. This performance was born under an evil star.

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