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La Clemenza di Tito

Glyndebourne Festival

In Review Glyndebourne Clemenza di Tito hdl 1017
Claus Guth’s staging of La Clemenza di Tito at Glyndebourne
© Monika Rittershaus

THOUGHT IT WAS POPULAR in the decades after Mozart’s death, La Clemenza di Tito, first heard in Prague in 1791, was a repertory rarity until fairly recently. The Covent Garden premiere was not until 1974; the Metropolitan Opera offered it for the first time a decade later. Even Glyndebourne, with a reputation founded on its Mozart productions, did not program the piece until 1991. The festival’s second Tito production opened on July 26 and marked the local debut of the admired German director Claus Guth. Robin Ticciati, the festival’s music director, made a welcome return to the pit following his absence throughout the 2016 season due to a back injury.

There were also a number of cast changes over the months prior to the first night. American mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey, slated to sing the central role of Sesto, withdrew due to pregnancy, to be replaced by another cast-member, Anna Stéphany, whose original role of Annio was taken over by Canadian mezzo Michèle Losier.

Then, a little more than a fortnight before the premiere, it was announced that the scheduled Tito, Australian tenor Steve Davislim, had withdrawn because of unspecified “artistic differences”; in his place, Glyndebourne secured the services of veteran American tenor Richard Croft, whose most recent appearances at the Sussex opera house were back in 2000. 

Despite all these comings and goings, Guth’s detailed and involving modern-dress staging made a powerful impression. Christian Schmidt’s set conveyed the ambience of a serious modern political enterprise, with Tito as top dog, and with black-suited employees expressing their joint loyalty partly through a complex system of hand-gestures à la Peter Sellars. 

Beneath the somewhat menacing corporate headquarters building were reed-beds already familiar from the show’s videos (by Arian Andiel), which presented film revealing a troubled childhood friendship between Tito and Sesto—including Sesto’s shooting of a magpie that suggested violent impulses. First appearing during the overture, these poignant images momentarily faltered in a technical hitch that was subsequently rectified.

Vocal standards were high and finely aligned with the needs of the text and the wider drama. Alice Coote coped magnificently with the exigent demands of Vitellia, a role that spends a lot of time below the staff but also contains some alarming excursions right to the top of the soprano range; not every note was ideally voiced, but Coote’s portrayal of Mozart’s unashamedly entitled Emperor’s daughter was a compelling one. Stéphany’s conflicted Sesto carried equivalent conviction in a formidable physical reading combined with top-grade singing. A highly experienced Mozartean, Croft surged his way through the manifold difficulties in Tito’s arias, movingly conveying the Emperor’s painful uncertainty about how to balance the needs of rulership with personal trust. 

Similarly excellent were Losier’s scrupulously voiced Annio, Joélle Harvey’s lucidly sung Servilia and Clive Bayley’s Publio—who in this staging assumed power at the end of the opera, as Tito’s desire to rule apparently deserted him. Ticciati, meanwhile, led a vital and stylish musical performance, with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in exciting form in the pit.  —George Hall 

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