Photo: Bayerische Staatsoper
The second title of this late Mozart opera could be: “Or the solitude of the powerful”. For the work asks questions about trust and friendship in the life of the powerful. Whom can we really trust, as soon as we have just a tiny bit of power over others, and be it only the possibility to let the class mate copy our answers, or give a job to a friend? How can we know that our friends love us as persons and not for the things we can do for them? These are the questions the Roman emperor Tito encounters here, when he discovers that someone has tried to murder him, that this someone is his closest friend and moreover this friend has been driven to the deed by the woman he, Tito, was about to marry… The admirable production makes it quite clear that there is no satisfying answer. Everything in Jan Bosse’s staging, with Stéphane Laimé’s sets, Victoria Behr’s costumes and the magic lighting by Ingo Bracke, goes right to the essential, the inner life of the characters. Everything combines here to make the story clearly understandable and universal. Kirill Petrenko’s conducting goes in the same sense. It is dense, tense, intense and sober. And – oh joy! – we get to see here what I always dreamed of seeing in this opera: the soloist who accompanies the two pivotal arias comes upstage and plays the dialogues with Sesto, with Vitellia, for everyone to see.
But I’m anticipating. The curtain opens on an energetic overture, and the orchestra is visible on a podium, hardly lower than the stage. We can see the set of Act I: an amphitheatre, seen from below, a few columns, everything white and luminous. One by one, the protagonists arrive and take their places on the steps, waiting for their story to unfold. We can identify each one at once, and understand their place in the fabric of relationships, thanks to the beautiful and evocative costumes: Vitellia wears a great big yellow baroque gown, with an enormously enormous petticoat, and a red tower of a wig – here is a passionate and possibly dangerous woman. Servilia’s gown is pink and ends at the knee, suggesting innocence and sweetness. Sesto wears a simple black suit, and Annio looks like a hippie, with a long red wig and a sequin-embroidered jacket. Tito is dressed in a simple white shirt, floor-long, and in his emperor moments, he wears a toga-like coat over that. No crowns, no wigs, this Tito is human.
And so the drama begins: Vitellia, played by a magnificent Kristine Opolais, strong and nuanced, asks Sesto to kill Tito, who, in her opinion is guilty of the double crime of not marrying her and occupying the throne that should be hers. Sesto complains bitterly about having to murder his friend and about the beauty of women that would push him toward something that he abhors. Irish mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught interprets this Sesto in a simply breathtaking way. With a rich and warm voice, intelligent and subtle, she abandons herself so totally to the inner world of this Sesto, with his contradictions and suffering, that the genders divide simply disappears. English tenor Toby Spence is Tito. His voice is maybe a tad light for this part, but it makes sense for this emperor who wants to be human and keeps bumping into his own power. He gives up Berenice, whom he loves, in order to marry Servilia, a Roman and sister of his friend Sesto. Servilia however loves Annio and takes the liberty of informing the emperor of this fact. Hanna-Elisabeth Müller plays Servilia, all sweetness of voice and spirited mind. Angela Brower gives life to Annio, charming and credible as well. Tito accordingly gives up Servilia, too, and decides to marry Vitellia. Too late! She just has definitely ordered Sesto to burn down the Capitol and slay Tito. Furious finale of Act I, fire and blood are in the red light that now burns in the steps of the scene, the music does the rest, and we are pretty rattled as the intermission begins.
Act II opens on the same scenery, after the fire – ashes are still falling down and dense smoke fills the stage. The white marble has disappeared; the whole act will be played out on a naked podium, before a naked stage. No conductor, no orchestra, but here are Annio and Sesto. Annio occupies the cembalo and accompanies, molto secco, a recitative. He informs Sesto that Tito is alive, and Sesto lets slip that he is the arsonist and murderer everyone is looking for. The orchestra come trickling back to their places and Annio tries to convince his friend to confess everything to Tito and call upon his clemency, but too late. Publio, Tito’s confidante and strong man, appears and arrests Sesto. Tareq Nazmi interprets this Publio. His velvety bass is almost a bit too warm for this rather mean character, seemingly jealous of Sesto and his friendship with the emperor. He is a bit ridiculous, this self-important Publio, lifting his robes knee-high and sprinting here and there. And we are grateful for the smiles he provokes; they are the only ones in this story.