A very distilled Clemenza by Christopher Alden

Posted on February 8, 2013

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La clemenza di Tito - Vitellia and Sesto - Credit Michael CooperLa clemenza di Tito at the Canadian Opera Company, February 7, 2013. Complete cast & creative and performance dates.

Isabel Leonard was indisposed, we were told last night, so Wallis Giunta jumped in as Sesto, and her usual role, Annio, was sung by Sasha Djihanian. This may explain the lack of chemistry between Keri Alkema’s Vitellia and Giunta’s Sesto. Both sung well, but never really meshed into a pair tied into a torrid affair of sexual blackmail and dependency. Alden gives them plenty of opportunity to play out their attraction, but the two were rather better at fear and withdrawal.

Giunta’s Sesto was musically very accomplished: technically secure, with a bit of role debut nerves as added emotional spice. The reveal of the night for me was Keri Alkema’s Vitellia, who gave her everything to breathe life into a role that is easily reduced to a one-note shrill. This Vitellia was multi-faceted, moving from cold calculation to irrational jealousy to devastating remorse. The last Vitellia aria is a mini-drama in itself, trawling the dark depths of the stave and crying above its top.

The production itself distills the opera to its essentials — six characters struggling with questions of friendship and love under highly unfavourable circumstances — and displays these before a claustrophobic, huis clos set. A neo-Classical marble wall, could be even the Lincoln Center, cuts across the stage at an uneven angle. The red carpet hints at a culture of celebrity worship. Tito is a ruler in control of everything but his own baser impulses (Michael Schade in purple silk pyjamas and carrying a blanket, both items imperially branded). The character is awash with infantile regression — the blanket he’s carrying around is a permanent invitation to Sesto to come back in and snuggle. An early scene sees them rejoining for a comfort nap, and blanket creepily reappears in the “break-up” scene after the rebellion.

As a bare, intimate drama, this works all right — it won’t lift many skirts, but it’s functioning. There are some missed opportunities, however. The character of Annio (here Sasha Djihanian, usually Wallis Giunta) was, inexplicably, based on the character played by Michael Cera in Juno. Djihaninan wears the nerd glasses and the headband, and jogs and stretches in every scene. Mireille Asselin’s Servilia is played more accurately, but this doesn’t save the pair from caricature. Instead of being the only solid and serene relationship in the piece to contrast with the other, murkier liaisons, the two characters are rather astray and in search of a purpose.

Alden fans will delight in finding the more fun Aldenesque touches here and here. For example, there is a line for Vitellia in which she has a sudden inexplicable high note… you’ll see how he choreographed that one.

James Shields played the pretty basset-clarinet lines from the pit for the two key arias of Sesto and Vitellia. The young Israeli conductor Daniel Cohen was at the podium and he made many good choices, harpsichord for the recits accompaniment, for example. [There will be more to read about the COC orchestra and its two season conductors on this blog soon, as I'm wading through a lot of extra materials I gathered in the course of my work on the article about the orchestra for OC's spring issue.]

I’m seeing this again on Monday; let’s see how Isabel Leonard as Sesto affects the goings-on.

Photos by Michael Cooper. Top: Keri Alkema and Isabel Leonard; bottom: Michael Schade, the COC chorus and in the shaded foreground, Wallis Giunta and Mireille Asselin.

La clemenza di Tito - Tito (centre) - Servilia and Annio (in shadow) - Credit Michael Cooper

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