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Opera review: COC's Clemenza di Tito a mess of visual contradictions saved by brilliant singing

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Michael Schade (standing) as Tito and Isabel Leonard as Sesto in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of La clemenza di Tito (Michael Cooper photo).
Michael Schade (standing) as Tito and Isabel Leonard as Sesto in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of La Clemenza di Tito (Michael Cooper photo).

So how much clemency do we show director Christopher Alden, who unveiled the Canadian Opera Company version of Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito on Sunday afternoon — a production originally shown at Chicago Opera Theater almost four years ago?

Alden, a much-respected figure in the world of opera, has created a strange hodgepodge of mixed messages wrapped in strong visuals.

Alden’s Clemenza di Tito is all about a long, slick Mid-Century Modern travertine wall.

That immovable, imposing piece of scenery dwarfs all the human actors. It also serves as a punching bag, barrier and billboard for every situation in Mozart’s dramatic masterwork.

But what does the wall mean, exactly?

Thanks to a profusion of mixed messages in front of the wall, it’s hard to tell. Perhaps it’s all about containing the messiness of the human heart and of politics. Perhaps its something else.

One thing that is absolutely clear, though: this opera is gorgeously sung.

Golden-voiced American soprano Keri Alkema is vocally brilliant as Vitellia, the female catalyst for the story of ambition and betrayal which is ultimately resolved by the pardoning grace of Roman emperor Tito — portrayed by Canadian tenor Michael Schade in glorious vocal form.

Young New Yorker Isabel Leonard is spectacular as Sesto, who bows to Vitellia’s wishes and tries to assassinate Tito. Here is one of the great young mezzos of our time — not just a brilliant singer, but a capable dramatic force, the only one of this production’s characters who was able to focus all of her physical energy into a consistent message.

Rising Canadians — mezzo Wallis Giunta as Annio (a Patrician recast as a jogging fiend) and soprano Mireille Asselin as Servillia — were excellent in their roles and given opportunities to nicely show off their vocal chops. Bass-baritone Robert Gleadow had the thankless task of portraying Publio in full Roman centurion drag, but sang well.

The Canadian Opera Company Orchestra was a a model of grace under Daniel Cohen, who had a leisurely but endearing  way with his baton. Sandra Horst’s chorus was effectively deployed from the very top of the hall, just under the ceiling.

The visual side of this production is as full of contradictions as Alden’s direction. Set designer Andrew Cavanaugh Holland has done an excellent rendition of an early-1960s Modernist lobby as the one-and-only set, but Terese Wadden’s costumes are a bizarre mishmash of modern (something from Doris Day movie, actually) and Ancient Roman.

Gary Marder’s lighting alternates harsh whites with golden yellows projected from stage right, hard on the eyes of anyone sitting on the opposite side of the auditorium.

Tito himself spends the bulk of the opera wearing purple silk pyjamas — a sort of Hugh Hefner draped in a brown carpet that he drags and tosses about like a security blanket. This is not a great Roman emperor, but a reluctant, dissolute shadow of what Mozart’s Tito was supposed to be.

Mozart wrote the opera in 1791 as a celebration of what a fair monarch should represent — as Tito sings, “I won’t have loyalty that comes from fear” — but Alden undermines this with messages about how love and politics are nothing but empty promises.

Thank goodness the music itself is as beautiful as Mozart gets. That goes a long way toward forgiving this production’s faults.

Performances continue to Feb. 22, with a special Ensemble Studio version being presented on Feb. 6, at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. Details here.

John Terauds

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