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La Clemenza di Tito

English National Opera, London Coliseum

WOLFGANGAmadeus would have said, and indeed may have said it, that he had two partners in life, his music and his wife, Constanze. In death, though, he seems to have struck up a pretty good relationship with David McVicar.

Two McVicar productions of Mozart operas have been performing at the same time just five minutes apart in London's West End. Die Zlauberflote (The Magic Flute) at the Royal Opera House and La Clemenza de Tito (The Clemency of Titus) at the Coliseum. Ironically, they were also composed simultaneously at the end of Mozart's life.

Tito, with its minimalist Yannis Thavoris design of plain black and patterned curved panels on a revolving stage, is a triumph. It is dark, full of conspiracy and marvellously sung by the best of young British soprano and mezzo talent. Sarah Connolly in a trouser role as the loyal, and disloyal, Sesto steals the show, but is ably supported by London-debutant Emma Bell's Vitellia, who opens the opera in jealous hatred and ends it in pitiful remorse, and Sally Matthews as Servilia.

As Mozart wrote the opera, which is much underperformed and under-recorded, to celebrate the accession of Leopold II to the throne of Bohemia, and with it the grandiose honorary title of Holy Roman Emperor, it seems strange that he used Pietro Metastasio's existing libretto, adapted by Caterino Mazzola, which starts with a new emperor coming to the throne after the assassination of his predecessor and segues into a plot to bump him off. Leopold must have watched this going off with his back firmly against the wall.

Judean Princess

Mind you, Tito would have impressed him: he is a babe magnet despite looking like a provincial bank manager. Well my Tito did. Paul Nilon had a sore throat and Stephen Rooke stepped in to take on the role of the emperor and he made a good job of a character who wants to be liked but needs to be firm.

First he's about to get hitched to a Judean Princess. The people don't like that so he ditches her. Then he hooks up with Servilia. She, though, loves Annio (Stephanie Marshall, who is obviously not a man but these seem to be in short supply around St Martins Lane, well at least countertenors are), tells Tito and he says, "Oh no probs. Off you go". Well actually in Amanda Holden's translation, which is possibly closer to the real thing than my interpretation, he sings: "You'd refuse a throne to be faithful to Annio! How could I ignore this noble passion?"

Then, and this is well before the end of Act 1, he opts for prospective wife number three, Vitellia, without knowing that the daughter of the assassinated emperor has put out a contract on him, well not exactly a contract but she had a little bit of pillow talk with her lover Sesto and in the middle of the post-nookie fag asked him to bump off the new man so she could become empress, as you do.

Now this is where if it were a West End farce or a pantomime we'd be shouting out "Don't do it" because Sesto is already well advanced with his hit-man plans - actually Rome is already burning while Tito is fiddling with his marital dilemmas. Act 1 ends with flames, ensemble singing and what seems a cast of thousands, although it can't be because this is the ENO and they can't afford them. What we get are Tito's praetorian guards, dressed as if they were extras from The Last Samurai rather than Gladiator, rushing very busily around the stage.

Act 2 is Tito finding out about Sesto's plans and feeling disappointed that his friend was going to off him. "I will never believe it," says Tito. "He is not only the most loyal of friends, but also one who loves me." Sesto retains his loyalty to Vitellia and doesn't grass her up. Tito is pretty pissed off; well in a huff anyway as Tito doesn't do pissed off, and sends Sesto to the dungeons and signs his death warrant. Rooke and Connolly bounce off each other superbly as Sesto attempts forlornly to explain his actions, or not. "What I have done is indefensible," he admits.

Tito, surprise, surprise, changes his mind, but only because he wants to impose the sentence in front of the people - he wants to be a nice emperor but obviously the focus group has reported that he should show he is tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. But before he can lower his thumb Vitellia admits her complicity in the plot. "I am more guilty than any other," she confesses. Now I've already explained how Tito is a bit of a girlie when he's around the girlies. He does it again. Instead of sending Vitella to the lions, he just says, "Oh that's alright then. Well don't do it again or I'll stop your bingo nights", or was it: "All are forgiven, all is forgotten." This is obviously one wimpish act too many for his guards and the opera ends with a Butch Cassidy-type freeze frame of them about to kill him, or are they?

Joyful Roland Böer

The orchestra under German conductor Roland Böer, another one making his ENO debut, was excellent, the overture almost making me forgot that an opera was about to start. The chorus, though, sounded a bit uninterested.

The whole thing was a joy; well sung, staged and managing to hold on to the drama, although I still believe that the ENO should have surtitles even for operas sung in English. At times it is difficult to catch every word, particularly when the coughers start up or the stage revolves with its humming mechanism, and I'm sure it would also help tourists, who tend to eschew the ENO for their grander colleagues down the road.

The Coliseum also needs to borrow some of the Royal Opera House's own praetorian guard. One guy sitting in front of me left his bag and coat on the steps. Now if that was Covent Garden the items would have been dumped in Bow Street and blown up, or at least a piece of paper would have been put on them telling the miscreant that if he does it again he'll be locked in Antonio Pappano's office and force fed Charlotte Church's back catalogue. Also one or two people got up during the performance to go where one does not know. Blimey, the Opera House redcoats would have arm-locked them back into their seats.

Review by Peter Wilson

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