Mozart – La Clemenza di Tito

ONP – Garnier, Tuesday September 19 2006

Conductor: Gustav Kuhn. Production: Ursel and Karl-Ernst Herrmann. Sets and costumes: Karl-Ernst Herrmann. Tito: Christoph Prégardien. Vitellia: Anna Caterina Antonacci. Servilia: Ekaterina Syurina. Sesto: Elina Garanca. Annio: Hannah Esther Minutillo. Publio: Roland Bracht. Orchestra and Chorus Of the Opéra national de Paris.

Phew! The reviews have been so unanimous in praise of Elina Garanca (“La Clemenza di Tito is in fact the Consecration of Sextus”) that I thought I’d better check I hadn’t made a fool of myself the last time (which was also the first) I heard her, in Cosí. But no: “Stéphane Degout and Elina Garanca, however, were the stronger pair: Degout is now an outstanding Mozartian baritone and Garanca was simply gorgeous.” Simply gorgeous: I got it right. She was the star of the show, certainly: pale gold timbre, a beautifully firm, fluid line, perfect intonation even in fast passages and surprising outbursts of power.

If the critics were less keen on Anna Caterina Atonacci, perhaps it was because her voice has more edge, more power, more maturity and more risk-taking than we’re now used to hearing in Mozart, where young, bland casts have become an unfortunate norm. She turns the role into a great femme fatale, and of course wears the four crinolined gowns with great Italian swagger.

Unfortunately, though there was no announcement, Christoph Prégardien sounded like a man struggling with a very bad cold: hollow, nasal sound, shaky intonation, top notes precarious at the beginning and only hinted at by the end… I thought he was ill and felt sorry for him battling on, but a critic friend told me, baldly, “No, he’s never been able to sing it.” Oh, well, he did look very like Derek Jacobi in I, Claudius

The rest of the cast were at the higher end of the youthful casts we get in Mozart. Ekaterina Syurina’s was a sweet voice with a good top, though under-powered in the rest of the range. Hannah Esther Minutillo’s was strong but slightly tart and she is quite often a little flat in the upper range. The not-so-young Roland Bracht was more an imposing figure in his steel breastplate under floor-sweeping Babar the Elephant tails than an outstanding voice.

The costumes (vaguely Directoire-to-Empire, graphic and beautifully tailored, plus the four magnificent pink strapless ball gowns for Vitellia) were, to me, the best part about this production. It is supposed to be something of a classic – it was first aired in Brussels in 1982 and has been around a good deal, so I’m among the last to see it. But I found it an odd mix of large-scale bareness and a handful of symbolic details, more or less successful: Vitellia stabbing a piece of water melon with her dagger and eating it with a wicked smile on her face; a candle, a book and a skull, lifted out of allegorical paintings, in front of Titus’s throne.

The set was a bare, very pale green cube, rather like a Prada shop before the shelves have been installed, with large doors to the sides and rear that opened up to show now an impressive enfilade of panelled doors, now receding colonnades and arches representing Rome, now seascapes. Above these were circular openings through which the choir could appear as required, waving laurels, and also through which was slowly and laughably lowered a giant cube of rock over Sextus’s head, until he was pardoned – an unexpected Tex Avery touch.

The acting was well rehearsed but conventional – even clinging to the walls at moments of high drama is now a convention.

Gustav Kuhn’s conducting was as humdrum as could possibly be, bringing no spring or bounce or nuance to the score; the orchestra was ragged and puddingy-sounding. Perhaps it was this total lack of sparks from the pit that made the few flames and fireworks of the burning of the Capitol look so half-hearted and ridiculous.


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