LA CLEMENZA DI TITO by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Canadian Opera Company). February 6. $25-$55. Rating: NNN
Members of the Canadian Opera Company went classical Roman - well, kind of - as they stepped onto the Four Seasons stage for a single production of Mozart's La Clemenza Di Tito.
The "kind of" refers to director Christopher Alden's production, designed by Andrew Cavanaugh Holland (set) and Terese Wadden (costumes) so that the six principles are in a combination of period and elegant outfits much of the time while the white-masked chorus is garbed in everyday modern dress; the set resembles the lobby of a Bay Street office building.
Despite the fact that the title character is the emperor Titus, much of the stage and emotional action happens between Vitellia (soprano Ambur Braid) and Titus's closest friend, Sesto (mezzo Rihab Chaieb, singing a pants - that is, male - role). Vitellia wants to be Titus's bride, but twice in the opera he seems inclined to wed others. Furious at losing the throne, Vitellia manipulates Sesto, who's in love with her, to murder the well-loved ruler. At one level Sesto is the key figure here, caught between love for his friend and love for Vitellia.
Others in the cast included Annio (soprano Sasha Djihanian), another noble Roman (and another pants role), who wants to marry Sesto's sister, Servilia (soprano Claire de Sévigné), and Publio, captain of Tito's guard (bass-baritone Neil Craighead).
Finally there's Titus, a role shared by the Ensemble's two tenors, Christopher Enns and Owen McCausland, one singing each act of the opera. It's always an awkward way to cast, but the math dictates it. The group gets one shot at the Ensemble show on the Four Seasons stage, but there are sometimes two singers who suit one role.
Each artist in this kind of divided performance can feel some discomfort. The first (Enns, here) sings the opening act but doesn't have a chance to conclude Tito's full dramatic and musical arc. McCausland, on the other hand, has to start both vocally and emotionally halfway through the story but without stage time to warm up on several levels.
In this case, the second-act Tito has the richer role, and McCausland did well at exploring the character's several moods. Happily, he also had a chance to sing the full role several other times, when he replaced tenor Michael Schade in the mainstage production. I caught one of those performances a week later and McCausland had become an impressive Tito, building a full character by the work's end and handling the opera's important and difficult recitatives with real feeling.
The standout in the Ensemble version was Braid, fiery and manipulative from the opera's start. At times the music lies too low for her, but she's an expressive singer who rightly isn't afraid to make the occasional unattractive sound to explore her character. Braid gave the jealous Vitellia a streak of impetuosity if not, at times, downright madness.
Chaieb's Sesto was better as Tito's anguished betrayer than Vitellia's frustrated lover, growing in the part during the second half. De Sévigné made Servilia, usually a secondary role, a major player in this production: playful, flirtatious and with some of the sweetest singing in the cast.