Last night saw the COC Ensemble Studio’s annual main stage performance. This year it was Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito in a Christopher Alden production. It’s a somewhat quirky production that I haven’t fully digested yet and may need to wait until after seeing the main cast on the 22nd to come to a more considered view. My initial reaction is that it has a lot of interesting ideas, maybe one or two misguided ones and that the whole thing, while interesting, isn’t completely coherent. That said, Alden productions often seem more coherent second time around. And whatever I might think of the production, it didn’t distract from some very fine performances.
Clemenza was written for a coronation. Convention dictated that it be fulsome in praise of whichever monarch was a stand in for the patron in the libretto. Given Mozart’s notorious lack of respect for the conventional hierarchy it’s not unreasonable to look for irony, even satire, in the piece even where it’s not obvious. Clearly that frames Alden’s concept. It’s also an opera about relationships; Tito/Sesto, Sesto/Vitellia, Annio/Servilia, Tito/Berenice, Vitellia/whoever works this week, Tito/Publio, Sesto/Annio. And so on. Alden explores this and doesn’t just focus on the obvious relationships. In particular he focuses on the Tito/Sesto relationship and there’s a definite sexual undercurrent there. I’m not sure what to make of the Tito/Publio relationship. There’s an element of manipulation that almost seems to parallel the manipulation of Sesto by Vitellia. Are we being told that Tito and Vitellia, despite appearances, are really meant for each other?
The ironic elements are suggested by a sort of 70’s kitsch meets Monty Python Romans. Annio is a sort of androgynous valley girl. Tito wears purple Hugh Heffner pyjamas and a gold wrap that later does duty as Sesto’s security blanket. Publio’s centurion uniform is worn over dress shoes and socks. The set is a cross between the Forum and a cinema lobby with a giant gold trash can. This is the bit I don’t really get yet. Is Alden suggesting a sort of ersatz Playboy Mansion idea of Rome? I’m not sure. Who is this Tito? Is he “good” or does he get off on the idea of appearing to be good? More thought needed here. Also what’s with the sporadic narcolepsy?
In any event the production didn’t ever get in the way of the performances which were very good indeed. The stand out has to be Ambur Braid’s Vitellia. She was so inside the character it was scary. She sang an extraordinary cadenza in her big first act aria and right at the end she produced a veiled tone that was weird, disturbing and exactly right. She’s also lost most of the shrillness that I’ve sometimes heard in her high notes. She’s not the most perfect technical singer. Her runs don’t have the Brigade of Guards precision of a Sumi Jo but it doesn’t matter. She is so “in the moment”. Would it be ridiculous to invoke Maria Callas? (not that Ambur sounds remotely like Maria Callas). Callas wasn’t technically perfect but she was very, very special. In her way, so is Ambur. And, doesn’t this rather give the lie to the notion that Young Artists Programs only produce technically efficient, bland singers?
Rihab Chaieb’s Sesto was also very good indeed. It’s a long and difficult role and Rihab rose to all the challenges both dramatically and vocally. It’s definitely the best thing I’ve seen her do. Tito was split between Chris Enns (Act 1 with hair) and Owen McAusland (Act 2, less hair). Chris just keeps getting better and he showed total command of the part last night. Owen was equally good and perhaps even more lyrical. He has a gorgeous voice which should take him far. Neil Craighead was pretty much ideal as Publio. he doesn’t have the big numbers but he does need to act and make the role more than just a foil for Tito. He did this with just the right combo of humour and menace. If they remake Life of Brian he should be a shoe in.
Sasha Djihanian’s Annio and Clair de Sévigné’s Servilia presented as very young. They are given slightly silly business, particular a rather over done stretching joke, that makes them hard to take seriously as deeply, deeply in love; which is what the music says. So, despite more than competent singing and acting, I don’t think these characters came over with the full pathos inherent in their roles. Ah perdona, faster, I think, than usual rather exemplified this. The most beautiful duet in all of Mozart rather went begging for want of real emotional depth.
The always excellent COC orchestra and chorus were lovely as ever. Daniel Cohen’s conducting is something I want to hear again because I’m not sure quite what to make of it. There were a number of heavy pauses followed by some generally quite quick tempi. Who was driving this? Alden or Cohen? Was some of it to help the young singers or a considered aesthetic decision? I’m not sure. It certainly wasn’t boring.
So for the most part I really enjoyed what was happening on stage and in the pit. The audience though did their level best to spoil it. I’ve complained about audience behaviour at the Four Seasons Centre before but last night was just awful. It wasn’t just the sneezing and coughing that John Terauds commented on so snarktastically on the opening night of Tristan. There was the pair of women in front of me who talked through the performance and then left noisily in the middle of the second act. There was the woman to my left who spent much of the time noisily unwrapping candies. And so on. The wild beasts in the arena may have missed out on Sesto, Lentulo et al but they’d be welcome to a good chunk of last night’s audience.
I’ve heard nothing but good things about the singing of the main cast of this production so I’m really looking forward to seeing the production again on the 22nd.
All photo credits: Michael Cooper