sat 13/07/2024

La Clemenza di Tito, Barbican Hall | reviews, news & interviews

La Clemenza di Tito, Barbican Hall

La Clemenza di Tito, Barbican Hall

Stunning performance of Mozart's maligned final opera proves it is no dud

Conductor Louis Langrée: a master Mozartian of clean lines, driving momentum and drama.

To Charles Rosen it was a work of "rarely redeemed dullness". The wife of Emperor Leopold called it "German rubbish". It's pretty obvious why so many have objected to Mozart's final opera La clemenza di Tito. Tunes (memorable ones) are by and large lacking, which is odd for Mozart. The overture is not something you'd want to hear on its own.

And the work's great solo arias are unwieldy in form (though fascinatingly so) and tricky to sing and separated by the vast wastes of a notorious recitative. Yet for me what the work lacks, it more than makes up for in dramatic clarity and economy, musical variety and formal inventiveness.

The visiting Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen and their attendant singers made us completely forget the possible flaws in their Barbican Hall concert performance. A clarity of conception and expression flowed directly from the conductor Louis Langrée. He knew exactly what he wanted: clean lines, a driving momentum and drama. The overture, shifting its weight from strings to woodwind with well-articulated bounce and brightness, carried its perkiness straight through into the muggy court histrionics of the opening scene. 

Alice Coote spun her long song outward from its still centre with thrilling centrifugal energy

What a beautifully cast lot the leads were. Not just vocally but also in terms of character. Each fitted their courtiers' psychologies like a glove. Malin Hartelius's troubled, scheming Vitellia delivered her Machiavellianism through both a fiery voice and bony, anxious gesturing. There was a particularly brilliant moment near the end of the first act where Vitellia finds out that her plotting has got out of hand and is about to bite her very nastily on the bum. At this dramatic turn, the vocal line reaches up beyond where Hartelius's voice will go. But instead of freezing and croaking, the soprano projected her vocal difficulties onto her character, hammed herself up - crossing her eyes and curling her lips - and made it all part of her end-of-act collapse.

Her accomplice, the conflicted courtier Sesto, was equally well assigned to a frighteningly male Alice Coote. Coote's voice - so rich and thick - was able both to wallow inactively like Hamlet and also to spring into Bin Laden-like acts of terror. Matching her musical flexibility in the celebrated aria Parto, parto, ma tu, ben mio was the balletic basset clarinet of Matthew Hunt. Coote spun her long, clarinet-stalked song outward from its still centre with thrilling centrifugal energy.


Michael Schade was the ideal enlightened Emperor, his effete, insouciant way allowing him to stumble through the opera with convincing cluelessness. So laid back, in fact, did Schade's Emperor become that he nearly came a cropper in his spurt of coloratura in Act Two. The old pro kept calm, however, and ended up hitting every last semi-quaver on the nose.

The vocal talent didn't stop at the leads. Christina Daletska's trembly little Annius was terrifically pretty. Brindley Sherratt's Publius was a wonder of firm, well-projected and clear bass singing. And just as you thought you'd seen the best of the vocal soloists, up popped Rosa Feola's Servilia; her short but impassioned Act Two aria had the audience swooning. Thankfully all three were given more than the musical scraps to sing. One of the great blessings of Clemenza are the duets and trios, which contain a wealth of interesting musical material. 

Underpinning all this characterful court intrigue is eccentric orchestral activity and tonal instability. The choruses get some of the best of this in their bookend interruptions. The Deutscher Kammerchor never shied away from pointing up the musical subsidence. And neither did Langrée. But dramatic energy was his focus. And he and his extremely alert orchestra kept up such a fantastic momentum - especially in the much-derided recitative - that it was harder than ever to understand the beef that Rosen and his many eminent fellow carpers have, in the past, had with the work.

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