YES, IT WAS WORTH IT.
English Touring Opera Spring Season
La Clemenza di Tito
Julia Riley as Sesto and Charlotte Stephenson as his friend Annio
52 performances involving 3 different operas
15 different venues from the far south-west of England to Ireland and Scotland
78 days of performance and travelling
You have to hand it to any touring company who tackles such a schedule. English Touring Opera are nearing the end of their Spring tour in which they feature three very varying programmes. Fantastic Mr. Fox by Tobias Picker with libretto by Donald Sturrock and based on a story by Roald Dahl, suits the family audience. Il Tabarro and Gianni Schicchi, two one-act operas from Puccini’s operatic trilogy, Il trittico is their punchy double-bill and Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito, which is the one I was looking forward to. Taking part in opera makes huge demands on all involved but, if you add to that the constraints of 15 different stages, each with their accompanying pit foibles, acoustics, differing dimensions and “feel” plus the rigours of travel and staying away from home to say nothing of the vagaries of the British weather, it’s a wonder that touring companies survive let alone flourish as this one obviously does …..
When it presents work of this standard on a relatively small subsidy, ETO presents a superb bargain for the nation.” The Telegraph (4 stars)
“Ensemble work doesn’t get any tighter than this, and the orchestra sounds divine.” The Independent on Sunday
English Touring Opera have scored a winner with this double bill. I’ve generally enjoyed ETO productions in the past anyway, but this year they really seem to have stepped up a notch. — Intermezzo
A blog written whilst touring by Mark Wilde, who plays Tito, gives some insight into the time structure for the company on performance days.
Having decided to see one of the performances of La Clemenza di Tito [ see previous post ] I made a conscious decision to visit a house which is particularly well known to me, having worked there on many an occasion. This way I was already aware of the difficulties to be faced by the vastness of a stage where all the sound goes upwards, the natural acoustic in the auditorium which is as dead as a dodo and the ambiance which is pretty unwelcoming. If a company can raise spirits in this arena then they can do it anywhere. Actually the word ‘house’ is rather pretentious in this context as this venue, like many others, is multi-purpose but not designed for opera performance in any way whatsoever.
I arrived early to soak up the atmosphere. There wasn’t any, until ten minutes before curtain when the audience, distinctly over 50’s with a depressing lack of youthful patrons, decided to be seated. I got the chance to concentrate on the orchestra warmups and played ‘spot the tune’ with myself as the players had a last minute practice of the tricky bits.The safety curtain was up and we were faced with an open stage, sparsly furnished, dimly lit with banks of lights and two monitors visible stage right and left [ for conductor watching ] It was possible to make out the huge model head of Tito which formed the centrepiece being flown from the tower on substantial ropes. This head ended up in pieces to indicate the fire and the insurrection.
The overture reassured me that the orchestra, arranged at about half height in the hydraulic pit, was unlikely to be overpowering although from my seat, on the right of the auditorium, it was a little brass heavy. During the overture, Vittelia appeared and started writing at a small table upstage left. The period that had been set by director James Conway was the 1930s so we saw various dresses, mens’ overcoats, trilby hats, suits and military uniforms from that era.
The first scene began and I was immediately dismayed that the recitative was accompanied by solo harpsichord [ modern pit keyboard ] no ‘cello. Now I do enjoy a bit of recit., unlike some who switch off between arias, but I have to say that it seemed empty and endless, especially since it was in English; translation by Andrew Porter. I had known that this performance would be in English but I was unprepared for my reaction. I found parts of it incredibly jarring, parts almost laughable and virtually all of it hugely disappointing especially since I knew that the performance of the two Puccini operas the night before had been in Italian. ‘Vieni’, sung repeatedly by Publio, translated into ‘Come now’ is a prime example of how English can fail abysmally as an operatic language.
Having said all that, I have to express admiration for the quality of the orchestral playing and ensemble balance, both being superb. The woodwinds in particular made a luscious sound, the oboe being Germanically rounded and the bravura clarinet in ‘Parto, parto’ executed with beauty and panache. Conductor Richard Lewis kept things moving tempo-wise, sometimes, in my opinion, to the detriment of the mood in certain arias. The duettino ‘Deh prendi un dolce amplesso’ sung by Sesto with Annio and Servilia’s ‘Ah perdona …’ with Annio lacked any rubato and came across as workaday and charmless. However most of the ensemble and chorus work suited this drive and the pace of the production did not flag.
Well, so far this sounds pretty negative stuff but there was much to admire in the singing performances. Rather than credit each by name let me just remark that each character sang well with no one in particular standing out although tenor Mark Wilde’s diction was noticeably impeccable even though he sounded a little tired. He is a man of small stature but managed to be a commanding Tito even though most characters, especially Sesto, towered above him. The audience reaction was merely polite until the well-known arias were sung then the applause was enthusiastic and there were shouts of approval at the curtain calls.
Here is a quote from the programme notes by James Conway, the director.
“You know if you love La Clemenza di Tito if you can love Sesto.”
Did I believe in the character portrayals and the story? No. I saw neither love, passion, lust nor intimacy in any of the relationships, especially Vitellia and Sesto’s, so could see no reason for Sesto to take the course of action he did. She just did not seem to have any hold over him. There was precious little physical contact between any of the characters and, if anything, the friendship between Tito and Sesto came over as the most genuine, especially since they were allowed to fight. Anguish was mainly portrayed by characters sinking to their knees, leaning against walls or rushing off once they had sung. I wanted to be swept up in the tumult of emotions on stage and to feel real sympathy/empathy/pity/something for Sesto but I could not. It may be my musical barriers, my lack of tolerance , my complete immersion in the version of this opera that I know so well… who knows. But I am glad that I had this experience as it brought several things into sharp focus, nothing to do with the good folk who work their socks off to provide good quality opera to a wide audience but more to do with my own difficulties of acceptance. But in the end you like what you like and that’s how it is, I guess. Excuse me – I’m off to reconnect with THE Sesto. I may be some time.
A note from the author :-
This is not meant as a “review”, merely my personal thoughts and reflections on a recent experience. I have huge admiration for ETO and the work they do, especially with outreach and education.
All photos on this page by Richard Hubert Smith
PS. Speaking of Mozart. There’s a lovely piece in today’s Guardian – interview with Sir Colin Davis.
Whether you are off to the opera or not