Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito ends in a state of euphoria, following a viral outbreak of plotting and backstabbing. Betrayals forgiven, a new era of social harmony and reconciliation beckons. As good a piece as any, then, to welcome us back to live opera performance, and Richard Jones’s new production at the Royal Opera House tentatively captures the mood of the moment.
The sets by Ultz, lit by Adam Silverman, consist of a series of interior spaces and facades – a living room, a shop, a brick wall with window – pushed around by visible stage hands. They’re everyday and contemporary rather than imperial and Roman, in the same way that the costumes – brown suits, shop assistant’s uniform – are plebeian. The drama is largely about honesty and integrity in public life, with the interesting reversal that it is not the governing authority that is suspect but the populace. At the bottom of the heap, in this production, are the rabble of hoodies and graffiti merchants; above them the intriguers and the misguided.
Perhaps understandably, given the restricted operating conditions, the production does not show Jones firing on all cylinders. But there are characteristic touches: mysterious comings and goings, enigmatic slogans, nods and winks. With conductor Mark Wigglesworth a willing partner, he for once makes convincing Emperor Titus’s longing to be a simple peasant whom no one need deceive. Best of all is the final twist, with a self-aggrandising Tito so pleased with his own magnanimity that he leaps about the stage punching the air, while the hoodies menacingly reveal their blades.
The cast is not starry but made up of accomplished emerging artists and prizewinners. Nicole Chevalier brings exceptional eclat to the role of the ambitious Vitellia, while Christina Gansch and Angela Brower are also admirable as Servilia and Annius. Emily d’Angelo, in T-shirt and knee-length trousers, cuts a fetchingly boyish figure as Titus’s treacherous friend Sextus and sings the part equally appealingly. Confronted by Edgaras Montvidas’s fresh-voiced Titus, a modern headmaster in sneakers, this schoolboy Sextus cowers in the corner facing the wall.
Wigglesworth draws some ravishing playing from his orchestra, perhaps drawing things out exquisitely once or twice too often. If the musical flow is occasionally compromised, so too is the dramaturgy. Allowances can be made for half-formed sets, but there’s a flaccidity and lack of momentum that may be addressed in future performances. Someone needs to put a bomb under it in the same way the conspirators set the Capitol ablaze.
One shouldn’t be ungrateful, however. In challenging circumstances, these performers have come together to offer a highly creditable presentation that reminds us of what we have for too long been missing.
Royal Opera House, to May 23; streaming live, 7.30pm, May 21, stream.roh.org.uk