IT IS astonishing that Mozart’s penultimate opera fell out of the repertory for a century and a half, only to be revived some 20 years ago. Opera North’s splendid new production under John Fulljames reveals a gripping tale of conflicting emotions and several musical jewels that deserve regular display.
Rather than tart up Mozart’s only opera seria – which generally designates characters drawn from ancient history Fulljames strips it down to its bare essentials. The chorus never appears, singing only offstage. Three actors cleverly augment the six principals when a ‘crowd’ is needed.
Otherwise Conor Murphy’s largely grey set is simplicity itself: a large, framed glass rectangle on a revolve, backed by cuboid, computer-generated graphics (Finn Ross) which regularly give a three-dimensional effect. A table and the odd chair are the only props. So there are few distractions: for once, we can concentrate on the drama.
Murphy’s costumes are modern chic, all black, with a few telling dabs of colour: Tito’s first squeeze, Berenice, is seen in the overture in a blazing-red ball gown; Vitellia, the only real baddie in the piece, has an orange wig (and scarlet linings to her suit); Annio (a trouser role) sports a gold quiff with her page-boy cut.
As so often in opera, it is the orchestra that provides the real foundation for the evening’s success. Douglas Boyd’s debut in Leeds is auspicious: he guides the period-style orchestra with decisive efficiency – just what the singers need – a Mozartian to his fingertips. Amid some felicitous woodwinds, Colin Honour’s clarinet (doubling on basset horn, a real luxury) is outstanding in his two obbligato arias.
Much depends on Annemarie Kremer’s Vitellia, the pivot round whom all the love entanglements revolve. She does not disappoint. Though a little blustery in Act 1, her eventual conversion to truthfulness, a mad scene in all but name, where she stabs herself, is simply stunning theatre: every note of her two-and-a half octave range is made to count.
The two trouser roles boast equally world-class performances. Helen Lepalaan’s Leeds debut, as Sesto, is a revelation of concentrated coloratura and conflicted loyalties. She is an actress, too: we feel her pain. Kathryn Rudge is an intense, compelling Annio, delivering oceans of beautifully-centred tone, not least in her Act 2 aria.
The heft of Paul Nilon’s tenor has increased markedly in recent years, if with a slight loss in tonal purity. But Tito’s agonising dilemma over condemning Sesto brings out the best in both his voice and his theatrical prowess. Fflur Wyn’s engaging Servilia and Henry Waddington’s sturdy Publio round out a cast without a weak link.
This riveting production converted me to Tito: let it do the same for you. You dare not miss it.
Further performances tonight, February 20 and 22, then on tour.