Review: The Caesar under the stairs. “La clemenza di Tito” at the Liceu, 2020

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[Curtain Call, Feb 19th: “La clemenza di Tito” at Gran Teatre del Liceu: ominous head that could not be cropped out (this is not the Caesar), lots of empire waists, the guards in full pose mode, Matthieu Lécroart (Publio), Lidia Vinyes-Curtis (Annio), Myrtò Papatanasiu (Vitellia), Paolo Fanale (Tito), Stépahnie d’Oustrac (Sesto) and Anne-Catherine Gillet (Servilia)]

There’s a lone Caesar’s bust, unheeded by anyone, in the archway under the stairs. That archway wheels in and out again and again as the characters, like color-coded chess pieces, are arranged around the space: David McVicar’s Regency “Clemenza”, originally developed for Aix-en-Provence in 2011, premiered at the Liceu on Thursday.

As always, something originally developed for another cast can be a case of Lost In Translation for productions. The cast in this interested me more than the staging. I found it worked well enough in Aix, though it is a bit static in nature. My impression was glimpses at a concept, intellectually, but I couldn’t find them actually carried through, in a logic of bodies and motivations.

The Regency look doesn’t help with the somewhat static impression, which may have been intentional. Perhaps a parallel, as a class/power allegory, for the early 1800s social order, with its post-Congress-of-Vienna conservatism and Napoleonic echoing of symbols of Roman antiquity?
Also, perhaps a commentary on gendered, class-mandated agency, in which upper-class young men – and for each ungainly, billowy empire waist, there was a mezzo in a dashing Byronic coat at hand – suddenly had leeway in developing a political voice and vision, removed from the military grunt work that has helped build their privilege.

But these are intellectual puzzles: ideas, but they did not come fully to fruition scenically and they were not necessarily engaging on the stage.

The drilled guard of Tito draws a lot of focus: standing low with knees bent, twin swords drawn and sheathed in sync. They have good physical presence and freeze in positions of menace, but – after having seen McVicar’s Vienna “Ariodante” – it is the same purposefully uneasy, slightly neofascist leather uniform fetish aesthetic that continues on, adding less menace here. Curiously enough, it remains strangely unconnected to the singing and the plot. While the guard is quick with the military salutes and broad stances – something an eye who delights in the male figure foremost will likely find gratifying in its sheer display of energy and snappiness – the guarding of space around Tito didn‘t really create a sense of structural violence and fear. The focus seemed to be more on the movement in itself, and less about the atmosphere that must have produced it: violence, toxic masculinity, class hegemony.

They didn’t transmit menace because no one played fear of them. One scene was an exception: the guards arresting Sesto. Here, the wall the guards usually build around Tito were built around a distraught Sesto, who tries to connect to Vitellia across the invisible line, and the hesitancy and nerves of both Sesto and Vitellia – respecting the line, then forgetting about it and being thrown back by it again – gave an idea of a ‘wall of violence’ that may have been the idea behind this guard setup. There is something about it in the very first Tito appearance, too: walking out padded by all this sheer, lethal physical energy. Brute military force against a commanding class elite would have been a poignant observation to make – with Publio as the loyal foot soldier (Matthieu Lécroart’s take fit in well with this reading), who has worked himself up the ranks, rankled by Sesto who gets status thrown at him without having had to work for it, the one who salutes crisply against the one who languidly sprawls himself across the stairs – but it remains an inkling.

The production works with color coding: Tito, the white swan knight who cannot ask anyone to love him without being rejected, stuffed into his Beau-Aparte suit, is petrified in the original sense, just as the Emperor of “Woman Without A Shadow” (he is, however laura-ized, in love with Sesto, though he doesn’t manage to communicate it).

Servilia, the upscale palace dove in an empire waist dress, is likewise dressed in white (personally, I find empire waists to be an entirely unflattering choice on anyone and not a setting chosen by someone whose focus is on women and their agency). Sesto and Annio, young men of privilege – one even more than the other, because the ruler favors him – are used to taking up space and to throwing themselves around, and they are used to being granted that space, and the room to think and plot and grow and dream. Sesto is a bit more artsy and on edge. Annio, while dashing, is a bit more desk command trying on the naval commander coat (and such a nice coat it is) that he may still have to grow into a bit more, though it fits him well enough, down to the statement piece lapels (a dashing costume, really). The boots and nice haircut also add extra points (– actually, regarding the wigs in this production, please ditch them. Please. If the point is ‘Sesto, with the wild curls and wild dreams’: hello, you’ve cast d’Oustrac. I rest my case).

The staging is a take on a system, frozen and repressed, and only then, it is a take on those who don’t fit into it: it’s about Sesto and his loyalties, and ultimately overcoming his mad passion for Vitellia (tragedy, I mutter. Not at all relatable, either) and growing into this society that has produced him. Similarly, it is about Vitellia, who is likewise overcoming a passion (that for status) for loyalty (to Sesto – relatable, I mutter), but no one wants to forgive a woman who has broken the rules. Just as Vitellia, in the last moment, is loyal to Sesto over her ambitions towards Tito, Sesto is loyal to Tito over Vitellia. (ouch, I mutter)

Vitellia, marked in a medieval gendered logic through a purple gown and orange-red hair, stands out like a witch and is ostracized and shunned. In Papatanasiu’s take, she is at no point a sovereign schemer who delights in pulling the strings – instead, she is strung along, helplessly railing against a system that simply freezes her out. And in the end, when she acquiesces to the system’s rules, the only one on her knees, everyone evades her gaze as she searches for connection. Not just Sesto, who is focused on Tito, but also Annio and Servilia – Mr. & Mrs. Milqueotast – turn away from. The gaze direction, an array of small details, is very well done, in particular by Gillet and Vinyes-Curtis.

Just as Vitellia, Tito ends up isolated, starched into oblivion, a statue walking out staggering, dragged down by the heavy train of his coat.

The evening didn’t quite take full flight, which I attribute largely to the musical approach. Coming from Early Music, with the Harnoncourt/Kusej Salzburg “Clemenza” as a landmark in mind, the take by Philippe Auguin came across somewhat sedate and tame, a perfumed 1980s Mozart that, yes, had transparency, could keep the volume down and boasted a few lovely accents particularly in the lower strings, but lacked bite and drive. It felt like a “Clemenza” for people to whom opera seria is something ancient and exotic to be glanced at behind glass in a museum.

But “Clemenza” is not something to be gazed at through the dusty glasses of a showcase vitrine. This is politics and power and passion and one slightly BDSM love triangle, and it should leave you breathless and on the edge of your seat. And at no point, it should feel like an advertisement for laundry softener.

The overture and first scene are basically a twisted “Rosenkavalier” and if it does not feel like that right out of the gate, something is going wrong in my book (in their defense, neither d‘Oustrac nor Papatanasiu can be blamed for the vanilla soup wafting up from the pit – truly, some lovely accents and very cultivated and transparent playing, but it was too much Fragonard where one wanted some goddamn Schiele). The second part picked up and gave a more sculpted take from Anguin, but the audience reception remained reserved. Perhaps one does not clap when one believes themselves to be in a museum? Scene applause was very sparse, and there were people in the audience shushing attempts to clap after an aria (keep your verismo out of my seria, I mutter). In the box at our side, an older lady erupted into laughter, her shoulders shaking with silent mirth, at the most bewildering moments. If you give a performance no chance to come close to you, of course it will not grip you.

In the Second Act confrontation between Vitellia and Sesto, he finally snaps and reaches up to choke her and the moment teeters between mad rage and an undercurrent of kink, but no matter what your proclivities are, if you break out in laughter at that, you may be beyond saving. There is no audience for a “Clemenza” here, my notes at this point read. Which was lamentable, since there were definitely singers for a “Clemenza” around.

Paolo Fanale as Tito was left hung out to dry. He projects well, with a strong enough core and nice heft. The top doesn’t flow as effortlessly at times, which is probably because he is a heavier Tamino, but not an Idomeneo kind of tenor. There was barely a reaction to his first two arias, which even I – as a listener who usually does not go to the opera for the tenor – found cold. Fanale really got into fleshing out his recits in the Second Act and gave them a larger dynamic scope, but just as the staging has him in pristine isolation, the audience did likewise leave him out to dry: not connecting to him, not engaging with him, with timid scene applause only after his third aria, which is all about trying to be a person while everyone treats him like a statue: it was a moment not without irony, though I really would have wished Fanale a heartier reaction.

Likewise in white, but with a little more spunk, the Servilia of Anne-Catherine Gillet held a bit more spontaneity and warmth, making her something more than the tepid trophy princess. Her impatience over saving Sesto – the machinations of privileged family networks – was palpable, as was the anchor point she created with Annio, in a constant alignment of poses and glances. In tone, Gillet is a bit Bonney-ish, gleaming with a silvery sheen, focused and bright, but with a layer of lyric warmth.

The Annio of Lidia Vinyes-Curtis (who, in case I hadn’t mentioned it yet, did cut a really dashing figure) was a good match for her: a voice without a large heft, but with the material very well focused and navigated. Vinyes-Curtis offered a cultivated, relatable take, and came across as honestly committed to her role, which the audience connected to. Both arias were well balanced, with the second showing a bit more work. In acting, she managed to create and maintain quite a bit of personenregie detail, right from the beginning where Annio walks in on Sesto’s interaction with Vitellia and is so embarrassed by Sesto’s lack of decorum that he cannot even look at him.

Sesto, however, doesn’t care. Stéphanie d’Oustrac gives the impression that she has listened to the concept of static Regency repression and sculpted cultivation and then said, “Well, screw that, and I have the heft to back it up.” (She really does have it). She went out there, 200%.

Let me just say that “Deh, per questo istante” was even more energetic than “Parto” – really, who said that “Deh, per questo istante” would be in any way measured and contemplative? Tito just didn’t manage to say he loves him (again), but almost kissed him (again, one assumes), and there’s still Vitellia, this is not a sensation for elegiac sighs. This is robbing forward on one’s knees, mindless and overwhelmed and bursting at the seams, and also with an open Byron collar and I think we all held out breath there. d’Oustrac pulled out lovely sustained notes in the da capo, with enough heft to make that breathlessness last a little longer.

In her energy and the generosity in offering her stage partners take after take to play off, d’Oustrac reminds me a bit of Sonia Prina. The energy of an affect took precedence over a logic of beauteous line throughout. She was open, out there and fearless, concerned less with polish and beauty and more with an honesty that was gripping. D’Oustrac has enough Sesto experience by now that she can work around concepts and conductors in search of a connection to the score and to the audience, very smoothly, and it was a sort of breathless (again) pleasure to hear and watch her do just that. All her movements made sense, coming out of her text or being its logical build-up, and they dovetailed nicely into the approach of Papatanasiu, who also tends to react off her stage partners with a physical logic of movement, as if a scene were created in a segue of balances and imbalances.

Papatanasiu’s Vitellia is a lyrical take with dramatic borders, not just in singing. This Vitellia is tortured and ostracized, with moments of pining (duh, I mutter), not at all someone with power who delights in scheming. There is some playfulness to her interactions with Sesto, but the push-and-pull of manipulating him isn’t one of nefarious laughter: Vitellia’s rage is steeped in despair here, not Bond villainy. It’s a quality Papatansiu’s takes tend to have; I was reminded of her Semiramide that was never the fun kind of villainess but transmitted a despair beyond that.

Vocally, Papatanasiu’s Vitellia is essentially a lyrical take, with a lot of shining legato work reminiscent in color and verve of her Donna Anna or Donna Elvira, and a well responding lower middle range. The coloratura is solid (sometimes, she needs the split second to place it on the breath), with a quicksilver agility to it. She still couldn’t sidestep the conducting or the concept as easily, but give her a few more productions, and we’ll have a haunting Vitellia for the next ten years. The pull is already there. One thing I like so much about her style is how she does not make it sound easy: it’s not supremely polished without breaking into a sweat, it’s the lyrical umbra paired with walking the knife’s edge of getting to the core.
Beforehand, I was curious how she would maneuver the lower range of “Non più di fiori”, which is not her home turf. I’m happy to report that all the low notes were there – produced more than happening, but without pushing, with that innate logic of where to put the phrase weight, and with enough heft to get the point across. There was a first, quickly shushed (WTF, I mutter) bit of scene applause after “Deh, se piacer mi vuoi”, but after “Non più di fiori”, there was the telltale crackle in the air of a singer having gripped the audience (it was, on this evening, elsewhere only after Sesto’s two arias and a bit after Tito’s third) – but the dogged attaca prevented any acknowledgment of that. And there were, also scenically, a lot of well-observed moments: the way of sitting down before “Non più di fiori”, in the archway, or the tortured looks faced with Servilia’s pushy attitude before “S’altro che lagrime”. It’s Vitellia with a side of Idamante, not with a side of Elettra, and I would love a chance to see this take evolve in future productions (tonight’s radio broadcast was already a marked difference from opening night, with more ornamentation and a different spacings).

Vitellia and Sesto pay no attention to the Caesar’s bust in the archway under the stairs, either, as they dance around each other. It’s less a minuet and more on the existential level of a bullfight, though. Their interactions often transmit from a point of physical balance and distance. There is one moment early on of Vitellia walking up behind Sesto, which he is aware of, and the entire tension of the moment – unvernichtbar drückt die geringste Erregung in den gespannten Vorgang der Ferne sich ein – transmits through the slowness of her approach and his uneven breathing as he anticipates her arrival. “Fan mille affetti insieme” mirrors that (it has a lot of “Che giuramento, oh Dei”, and not just because Papatanasiu can likely sing Donna Anna in her sleep). Of course, that kind of tension is lost on people like the guy who groaned in indignation as the guard uttered a chorused grunt. I am guessing he didn’t enjoy d’Oustrac’s “out there, and making it real” take (I did).

Another nice detail, again one of balance/distance, worked up to “Parto”, with Vitellia slowly walking past Sesto, and Sesto, thrown of balance, actually stammering out his first “Parto”: this is why he has to repeat it. There is one choreographed kiss that has Vitellia dab at her lips afterwards, unexpectedly pensive, and Sesto with an open collar doing a Stuttgart Ruggiero, only with more skulking. When Sesto storms off after his aria, Vitellia looks after him, bemused. What this Sesto and this Vitellia share is that they are both always already in too deep; Vitellia is just somewhat better with navigating that.

Apropos kissing: before “Deh, per questo istante”, Tito almost kisses Sesto, and the lady in the next box (the one who laughed at the choking) grimaced in exasperation and threw up her hands.  In 2020. In Barcelona. Good Lord. – If there is one issue that “Clemenza” has, it’s certainly not the sex or the power games or one man in love with another, it’s that it feels too short.

This “Clemenza” ends with the elites making up around a shelled-out Tito, Servilia and Annio getting Sesto back into the family network and one can guess that won’t be too long before Sesto will be asked to stab someone else. I just hope it isn’t Vitellia.

In the end: friendly, if short, applause. The singers would have deserved more, from the hall as well as from the pit lead.

(Radio Catalunya will apparently have the broadcast online for a month: https://www.ccma.cat/catradio/alacarta/directe-a-lopera/la-clemenza-di-tito-de-mozart-des-del-gran-teatre-del-liceu/audio/1064565/)

 

12 thoughts on “Review: The Caesar under the stairs. “La clemenza di Tito” at the Liceu, 2020”

  1. As always from you, so much more than a review: a recreation, in your medium, of the experience, with all your perceptions of its intent and delivery, all your (and others’) reactions to the enactment, as it happened, then again as you analyze it. “Production recollected in tranquility,” is what Wordsworth would have said, if he’d been lucky enough to know. Plus your terrific wit: Beau-Aparte suit!
    Glad to hear you got to hear the radio version, very broken up in this part of USA. Something to look forward to, when other stations do it, and to read your review while listening, like a libretto only more sensible and exciting.
    It looks like Stendahl, and ‘twisted Rosenkavalier’ sure describes the insecure hysterical self-promotion of those novels, but neither military ballet nor vanilla soup suits them at all. Real opera seria style would, probably; a pity.
    The comparison of d’Oustrac to Prina is perfect. So much to look forward to as she dominates more productions.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oops, overlooked your final note that Radio Catalunya will apparently have the broadcast online for a month. Certainly worth trying again. Please can you post a pointer to their replay page? Thanks much.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It might have had typos, I wrote the review largely on the plane and didn‘t cross-check – it‘s been years since I‘ve had to read it. But it is the one line I remember of it.

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  2. And at no point, it should feel like an advertisement for laundry softener.

    HA! Perfect turn of phrase.

    I think your comment re: museum-mannered audience is likely right. And it’s a shame that the singers weren’t given a warmer reception for all the work they put in.

    I cannot, no matter how many times I read it, imagine Papatanasiu with bright orange hair…

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    1. And in a way, it‘s not something to put on an audience or even management (Liceu has an ambitious, wide program – bugged down a bit by Stagione system): what one recognizes as Mozart style or how to think about seria is rooted in a larger recording culture and canon structures and cultural politics (accessibility, identity,…)

      There was a sizable group of queer, cosmopolitan folks in attention, many different people, staff mirrored that, so I was surprised by what seemed to be an attitude towards Clemenza.

      >

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      1. “The conventions of any art form grow out of or in response to the ruling ideas and social conditions of its time and place. Depending on our distance from. that time and place, these conventions may seem to us puzzling, alien, freakish, even disgusting. Piled one on another, they can create a wall between us and the work we find impossible, or at least not worth the effort, to scale.” (David Littlejohn on opera seria)
        People who have temporarily come to terms with conventions – love/honor/duty plots, hysterica passio, a social order like chess played with statues – may react to moments of unstylized physicality as embarrassing violations of convention. Would this response vary with sexual orientation or preference? With age? It seems relevant that Mozart’s Clemenza is so late in the history of the form, a brilliant extension on a tottering house, an attempt toward the genuine where artificiality is typically more successful and effective.

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        1. It didn‘t seem to be age as a factor, in my impression, but a culture of perception. With queerness queering class lines, or requiring all too often a translation of affective repertoires, that may be a point.

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