All the lovely singing fails to save the Vienna State Opera's new production of Mozart's "La Clemenza di Tito."
No less an expert than Richard Wagner called Mozart's last opera "stiff and dry." And that's how the work came across at its latest reincarnation on Thursday.
Musically, the evening was a treat.
In her role as Sesto, Elina Garanca's big mezzo voice easily powered into effortless crescendos that rode atop the orchestra before throttling down with equal aplomb to perform delicate passages allowing solo woodwinds to shine through.
As Sesto's beloved Vitellia, Juliane Banse's voice topped out several times in the opening minutes, but she quickly felt comfortable enough to handle the more demanding coloratura sections. Also good: Chen Reiss as Servilia, Sesto's sister; Serena Malfi as Annio, Servilia's lover, Adam Plachetka as Publio, the emperor's confidante, Jennifer Larunsi as the princess Berenice and the Vienna State Opera Choir.
Not meeting expectations was Michael Schade as Tito. This improbable emperor forgives would-be assassins, women who chose others over him and others who defy his wishes — a highly artificial character who needs to be portrayed with vocal and acting authority to gain an inkling of believability.
Schade, whose specialty is Mozart, was adequate but not exceptional in both categories. His voice was occasionally thin, his theatrics overdone.
Not so for Louis Langree. Under his baton, the Vienna State Opera orchestra straddled with aplomb a score that moves from the staid pomp of the imperial palace to the passionate tempos of love and betrayal. The music can flow slowly here, tripped up by the many recitative passages, but Langree managed to avoid the orchestral stagnation that often characterizes the first act.
But whereas other Mozart operas are timeless — and even the most serious are sprinkled with humor — this is not the case for this work, written it is said in just a few weeks after being commissioned for the crowning of Bohemian Emperor Leopold II. It is Opera Seria, or "serious opera," and its time was passing even as it was being created. Now, more than 200 years after it premiered it has become even more irrelevant.
The plot is improbable and chaotic, while it takes more than a leap of faith to associate with characters who remain either static or undergo personality changes in less than two hours that most of us do not need to deal with in a lifetime. Only exciting staging can compensate, and none of that was seen in this performance.
The scenery was uninspiring: a mix of vague Roman period props and a grey wall covered with graffiti. Costumes are mostly contemporary, but there is no clear line. The acting is mostly adequate, no more.
Responsible for staging and acting direction are director Juergen Flimm and his crew: George Tyspin, Birgit Hutter and Wolfgang Goebbel. Some in the audience stopped cheering and clapping for the performers and erupted in "boos" when Flimm and his crew took curtain calls.
The story has it that Empress Maria Louise sniffed and called this opera "German garbage" after it was first performed in honor of her husband in Prague. That would be much too cruel.
But the Vienna company failed in its effort to put life in this admittedly difficult work.