Mozart's high-minded opera La Clemenza di Tito, a solemn hymn to mercy, was an austere choice for this triumphal return. But in a pared-down production that emphasises the quality of the singing, it rewarded with almost flawless performances from a handful of very fine singers.
How did they do it, during all the long months, the singers – how did they keep the voices that good? Were their neighbours treated to daily recitals from the back bedroom? But even a daily sing doesn't make up for working together, and in this socially distanced production, even now the performers pretty much had to back away from each other.
Which makes quite a lot of sense in an opera about fractured friendships and shifting affections. Tito is the wise emperor updated in Richard Jones's clumsy new production to an anonymous possibly Soviet era state, where even the leader is constantly under scrutiny. A watchful committee is ever poised to step in and remove him... This sinister angle robs Mozart's noble opera of its inherently hopeful message, that good will trounce evil.
Edgaras Montvidas in the title role of La Clemenza di Tito with Christine Brower as aide Annio. Photo Clive Barda
Instead, snarky graffiti undermines virtue and charity. "Troppa bonezza finisce alla monezza!" sneers one Italian dialect scrawl: "Too much goodness ends up in the garbage!" Arguably the world needs all the goodness it can get right now, so it was sad to see the noble sentiments of Mozart and the librettist Metastasio undermined by this notoriously contrary director.
Fortunately, the singing is glorious, even if Jones saddles his cast with unreasonable and distracting burdens, in terms of silly business, and hideous costumes by Ultz. He also designed the set, a crossover between the Roman forum and a grim land of deadly browns and greens.
The opera opens with Tito's young friend Sesto having a kickabout with hoodie friends. This forces the outstanding Italian-Canadian mezzo-soprano Emily D'Angelo to sing the entire opera in football kit, so that when she is uneasy, which is often, she has to shuffle nervously in shorts and boots like a guilty eight-year-old.
Inexplicably, in this production, Sesto is besotted with the matronly Vitellia, who is plotting against Tito, warmly sung by Lithuanian tenor Edgaras Montvidas. Sesto will even kill his friend to please her. Maybe it is the ravishing voice of American soprano Nicole Chevalier's Vitellia that wins his heart, because that can happen in opera.
Design by Ultz blends classical and modern. Photo: Clive Barda
When Tito chooses a bride, it is devastating for the young woman's real lover, Annio, superbly sung by Angela Brower, in another trouser role. This is a wonderfully well-balanced cast, underpinned by bass Jeremy White's grave Senator.
A slimline orchestra most incisively conducted by Mark Wigglesworth benefits from its lightness with thrilling clarity of sound and pianissimo, notably from the woodwind, an in-effect duet between D'Angelo and the clarinet a real highlight. A woolly off-stage chorus took a bow, and made the audience long for a stage teeming with people again.
In the meantime, with its high calibre of solo singing – risings stars D'Angelo and Chevalier both making notable Covent Garden debuts – here is marvellous, real-live, music to savour. Starved of this, who could help – despite Jones's cruel production – but feel generously towards this long-awaited ROH return?
La Clemenza di Tito is sung in Italian with English surtitles. Tickets are still available in a socially distanced auditorium. The production is streamed on Fri 21 May, 7:30PM (£16): click here to view
|La Clemenza di Tito, Royal Opera House review
|Royal Opera House, Bow Street, Covent Garden, London, WC2E 9DD | MAP
|Covent Garden (underground)
16 May 21 – 23 May 21, Performances on 19, 21 May at 7PM and at 3PM on Sun 23 May. Streamed on Fri 21 May, 7:30PM
|Click here for more information and booking