New Theatre, Cardiff
It's not so many years since Mozart's last opera, , was routinely regarded as unstageable - impossible to awaken to any dramatic life, Alfred Einstein called it in his Short History of Music. Perhaps he had never heard it sung on-stage with the brilliance and vitality which were the real raison d'etre of these 18th-century opere serie, with their ridiculous magnanimous tyrants and trousered soprano heroes. But he might well have been converted by Welsh National Opera's new staging (in co-production with Opera de Bordeaux), which at its best is a vocal feast at the centre of a production (by Yannis Kokkos) deliberately stripped of nuance and offered almost defiantly in the spirit of a concert- in-costume, white on white, with a single (mobile) marble column and a portable white throne.
The risks in this approach are obvious enough, but so, with strong castings, are the dividends. Cardiff has one huge pay-off in the young Swedish mezzo Katarina Karneus, whose Sesto at a stroke converts this pallid Roman Hamlet into a psychological study of real intensity almost entirely through the medium of the voice. With an audience more in tune with this kind of opera, where applause is virtually built into the fabric, her "Deh per questo" would have been an absolute show-stopper - sung with such pleading bravura that Tito's capitulation becomes even more of a foregone conclusion than the opera's title (which might after all be ironic) already makes it. But her "Parto, parto" earlier on, with basset clarinet (Leslie Craven) studiously placed in a stage-box in full audience view, was also a sharp virtuoso study in warring emotions vocally defined. As Michelin would say, vaut le voyage.
Karneus is in good company, though it must be said that the Vitellia, Isabelle Vernet, while a poised and stylish performer, lacks the inflammatory personality, and perhaps the sheer vocal range, to explain why Sesto is prepared to wreck his life at her command. Her "Non piu di fiori" (with Peter Fielding in the stage-box) was a nice concert item but not much more (one remembers Janet Baker turning it into a virtual mad scene). Glenn Winslade's Tito, though, is strong and oddly plausible, even if the voice lacks the last degree of warmth. Paula Hoffman is an enchanting, mellifluous Annio - about as masculine, though, as little Red Riding Hood; Lisa Milne an exquisite Servilia, Umberto Chiummo a strong Publio, with just enough of the guarded, conspiratorial courtier and a fine, dark timbre which is more than usually welcome in these female surroundings.
Charles Mackerras conducts a crisp, pacey readings, perhaps a shade too long on recitative, but in other ways succinct, mobile, with modern instruments, but alert to the message of the so-called authentic. Authenticity here, of course, is a matter of musical commitment as much as any number of ornaments or castratos and WNO are well on the way to achieving it.
Further performance: 3 October (booking: 01222 878889); then on tour (information: 01222 464666)
A vocal feast: WNO's staging of Mozart's last opera Clive BardaReuse content