Michael Schade (left) and Isabel Leonard make the most of Mozart in misguided production.
LA CLEMENZA DI TITO by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Canadian Opera Company). At the Four Seasons Centre (145 Queen West). In rep to February 22. $12-$325. 416-363-8231. See listings. Rating: NNN
You don't often hear polite Canadians booing. But that's what happened when director Christopher Alden and his production team took their bows after the opening of their new La Clemenza Di Tito.
When applause for the excellent singers and conductor Daniel Cohen died down, several people boldly bellowed their displeasure amid a smattering of claps. The lights soon went up, and the entire team made the quickest stage exodus in recent memory.
I'm all for innovation. I even found Alden's reworking of the Viennese staple Die Fledermaus last fall refreshing and psychologically complex. But his decision to add buffa to Mozart's opera seria cramps this production.
Clemenza, set in Rome, AD 79, tackles big, juicy issues like love, honour, political assassination and (hey, it's there in the title) forgiveness. After Roman Emperor Tito (Michael Schade) decides not to marry Vitellia (Keri Alkema), the daughter of the deposed emperor, she hatches a plot to kill him by seducing the young Sesto (Isabel Leonard) to do the deed. The murder is botched, and Tito and his all-seeing guard Publio (Robert Gleadow) are enraged. How to deal with the culprits?
Alden's approach is to make fun of it all. Sesto and friend Annio (Wallis Giunta), who's a fitness buff here, fist bump like two Roman bros, and Tito, especially in the first act, is a pompous ass who bounds onto the stage clad in purple pajamas and what looks like an area rug as a cape.
This trivializes the characters. When Sesto sings about Tito being a "just, merciful prince," you think, "Really?" All the nobility in Mozart's music seems contradicted by the staging.
There's potential in Andrew Cavanaugh Holland's set, which resembles a marbled hall in a big bank tower, complete with brass trash can and Latin inscription etched at the top. In one striking scene, Alden suggests a bit of Occupy movement insurrection, but it's not carried through, and after two and a half hours the imagery grows monotonous.
Thankfully, the musicians kick things up a notch. In the pit, Cohen delivers a clear, energetic reading of the score, with particularly fine playing by the woodwinds; the imaginative
changes in tempi, especially within arias, feel fresh.
Schade, even when dangerously leaping onto benches, adds shading to Tito with his strong, pure tenor, while Gleadow, looking like a model in a Trojans ad, has a rich, powerful bass that fills the hall.
Alkema bites savagely into her fun role of the spurned Vitellia, while Leonard triumphs as the conflicted Sesto, her tone even and characterful.
A shame they're upstaged by the direction. But look at it this way: the opera will get you talking. And that's a good thing.