Friday, October 24, 2008

Opéra de Lyon - La Clemenza di Tito - 10/21/08

by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Conductor: Jérémie Rhorer
Director: Georges Lavaudant
Tito Vespasiano: Andrew Kennedy
Sesto: Ann Hallenberg
Vitellia: Alexandria Pendatchanka

After one week of extended nature-bonding with each of my parents and their significant others in Provence and Auvergne, it was a real pleasure to be back in my hometown of Lyon for my last days in France. As I was planning this trip, I had decided that this year I was finally going to attend an opera there and I invited my mom to join me as an early Christmas present. Luckily, there was a performance of La Clemenza di Tito, Mozart’s kind-of last opera (The bulk of The Magic Flute was already written), scheduled on one of the three evenings we'd be spending in the area. While not overly familiar with it, I figured it was hard to go wrong with Mozart, and I got us the tickets.
I was also looking forward to the opportunity to at last be able to check out the inside of a building that I've always found so intriguing from the outside, the off-white color and purity of its classical lines standing in sharp contrast against the sleek steel-and-black-glass look of its modern component sticking up and above. The inside turned out to be quite a controversial and, huh, interesting combination as well. While the foyer reminded of the splendor of times past, the auditorium was all black and industrial-looking. Such a dark and stark environment may help the audience focus on what is going on onstage, but is in no way pleasing to the eyes.
As for the opera itself, the initial surprise came from the fact that it was a modern production. I had half-expected to attend one in Germany, which is famous for it, but Tosca had been ultra-traditional. However, I guess good things do come to those who wait as this new French production was not only contemporary, but a fantastic surprise as well. The story is fairly straightforward and revolves around the theme the enlightened despot, in that case the Roman emperor Titus, which happened to be quite a relevant topic in 1791 Europe. This opera seria was obviously more of a money-making job than a work of love, but while some of the plot lines lack credibility and the recitativi secchi can occasionally be quite overdrawn, this work does not deserve the qualification of “porcheria tedesca” (German rubbish”) attributed to it by the empress Maria Luisa.

From the very beginning, the production was very promising. The large worn-out mirror behind the plotting Sesto and Vitellia gave the tone to understated but very assured décors, forcefully emphasizing the unfolding action. Everything seemed to have its purpose and fulfilling it with impressive efficiency, from the discreet use of video, the timeless and attractive costumes, to the stunning, powerfully evocative sets, and, last but not least, the first-class singers. The whole cast and the chorus delivered commanding and heartfelt performances, but a special mention must be made of Ann Hallenberg, whose singing transcendentally and effortlessly covered a full range of emotions while playing Sesto, the part erstwhile reserved to castrati. Andrew Kennedy perfectly impersonated the internal struggle of the title character when he had to sign his friend’s death sentence, and Vitellia was deliciously baaaaaaaaaaad, first full of jealousy and relentlessly scheming to get her way, later convincingly conveying feeling of guilt and anguish.

All in all, this was the type of production that makes one wish that the creative minds at play had better material to work with, but this is really nit-picking. The issues with the narrative ended up disappearing as our eyes and ears were fully engaged in the visuals and musical elements, and the evening was deemed a full success, even as we trod our way to my mom’s car under the pouring rain.

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