National Opera: La Clemenza di Tito

National-Opera-La-Clemenza-di-Tito-photo-John-HarveyHistory was made in Llewellyn Hall on Saturday evening when Australia’s newest professional opera company, National Opera, under the Artistic Directorship of Peter Coleman-Wright AO, staked its claim for national attention with the premiere of its inaugural production, Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito.

A canny choice by Coleman-Wright, who also directed the production, because La Clemenza di Tito, being an ‘opera serio’ written by Mozart in his last year, tells a complicated story of betrayal and forgiveness. The title translates as The Clemency of Titus and while it may not be as popular as some of his earlier operas, and therefore more rarely performed, it contains some of Mozart’s most beautiful music, and it is the music that is the prime focus of Coleman-Wright’s impressive production.

Although it’s a very fine concert hall, Llewellyn Hall lacks many of the stage facilities necessary for staging opera. Rather than dwell on the disadvantages, Coleman-Wright has concentrated on the advantages and for this production has moved the orchestra off the stage onto the floor in front, then filled the stage with a simple, formal arrangement of rostra and greenery to suggest a Roman forum and provide a series of raised spaces on which the singers are able to depict the various locales required by the story.

Resourceful lighting designer, Mark Dyson, besides defining those spaces also added subtle warmth and atmosphere to the wooden acoustic panels which surround the stage area, and which act as screens on to which essential information is projected to allow the audience to follow the nuances of the plot.

However Coleman-Wright’s master stroke has been to persuade some of the country’s most accomplished singers, some of whom commenced their operatic careers in Canberra, to return home from overseas to undertake roles in this production.

Included among them Bradley Daley making his role debut as Tito, Catherine Carby as Tito’s friend, Sesto, Helena Dix as Vitellia,  the woman who persuades Sesto to assassinate Tito so that she can occupy the throne, Andrew Collis as the captain of the guard, Publio, and Eleanor Greenwood to play Sesto’s friend Annio. He’s supported them with a meticulously trained chorus of emerging young singers, one of whom, Mikayla Tate makes her impressive professional debut in the important role of Servillia.

From the first imposing chords of the overture it was clear that this was going to be a performance to remember with the musicians of the Canberra Symphony Orchestra responding to Dane Lam’s clear, commanding conducting style with playing that was crisp, accurate and supportive. As well as conducting the orchestra, Lam also accompanied the recitative on harpsichord, and impressed with his ability to maintain an excellent balance between the orchestra and singers throughout.

An Internationally acclaimed singer himself, Coleman-Wright knows a thing or two about staging opera. He clearly appreciates the importance of stillness, with direction that is uncluttered and tightly focussed. He carefully avoids gimmicks or any unnecessary distractions from the music. His priority has rightly been on displaying the talents of each of his exceptional cast to their best advantage, resulting in an evening of exquisite singing.

Bradley Daley gives an impressive performance in the central role as Tito. His gritty heldentenor voice is exactly right for the ruler who must decide the fate of his best friend, Sesto. His climatic second act aria, Se all’impero, in which he decides that if the world should accuse him of anything, it should be of showing too much mercy, was a highpoint of the evening.

Catherine Carby as Sesto, the friend who tries to murder Tito, also gives a performance to savour, the highlight of which is also her second act contrition aria, Deh, per questo istante solo, in which her famous lustrous mezzo and mastery of phrasing is on full display.

Helena Dix, who plays the villainess, Vitellia, has been described as having the most exciting voice since Joan Sutherland. Indeed her voice is thrilling, right through the range, and she tossed off the vocal complexities of her arias with disarming ease. But the real surprise was her acting. An imposing figure, costumed in dramatic red, she brought an unexpected humour and playfulness to the role which makes it impossible to take your eyes off her whenever she’s on stage.

Andrew Collis brought a fine presence as well as his rich bass-baritone voice to his role as Publio, the captain of the guard, while Eleanor Greenwood in the other trouser role as Annio, the friend of Sesto, dazzled in the lovely first act duet, Ah, perdona al primo affetto, in which Annio and Servillia declare their love for each other, then later in the second act when she pleads with Tito to spare her friend, Sesto.

High praise also for emerging young soprano, Mikayla Tate, who held her own in such illustrious company, displaying admiral presence and a clear, sweet soprano particularly in her solo, S’altro che lagrime, when she warns Vitellia that love alone will not save Sesto.

A particularly interesting feature of this production is Fiona Victoria Hopkins extraordinary costumes. Defiantly ambiguous in avoiding reference to period or place and verging on wearable art, she flatters the singers with imaginative use of, colour, fabric and texture to define each character. As well as creating remarkable costumes for the soloists, her solution for the chorus was both attractive and sensible.

With this fine production, National Opera has made an auspicious start and set itself a high bar for future productions.

La Clemenza di Tito
Llewellyn Hall – ANU School of Music, William Herbert Place, Canberra
Performance: Saturday 10 April 2021
Season continues to 17 April 2021
Information and Bookings:

Image: National Opera’s production of La Clemenza di Tito – photo John Harvey

Review: Bill Stephens OAM