Artillery Row

Moving beyond the text

La Clemenza di Tito, Geneva

With opera in Britain receding to a speck in the distance, replaced by spinstery salon concerts in the Crush Bar at Covent Garden and silence, for the most part, elsewhere, it’s bracing to dive into the chilly waters of the earnest European version, where a few places have kept ploughing the choppy seas (as they can afford to, being generally about ten times more cosily upholstered than our penurious providers). Any other eccentrics who fancy such a dip might check out a game attempt to make sense of Weber’s fab Gothic-horror Freischütz at the Munich Opera, and fans of Camus and Sartre will enjoy director Christoph Marthaler’s latest go at poking around their ideas, using the medium of Gluck’s Orfeo, at Zurich. Both these shows are musically exceptional, with some terrific singers too. But (really so you don’t have to) I’m going to have a look at something else.

One of these days, Milo Rau’s Geneva staging of La Clemenza di Tito by Mozart will play to an opera house equipped with an audience, and I’m dying to be there: it’ll be fun to watch the reaction even of a cowed Europublic, generally too polite to set fire to the joint or even throw old fish at the stage. The Grand Theatre in Geneva went to some lengths to plan and rehearse this show, and even got to perform it once (to an empty house) before the government closed theatres on February 18th, putting the kibosh on the rest of the run. But at least the cameras were there, so the memory of a somewhat self-consciously epochal performance is preserved, and it is sporadically available on Mezzo TV.

Rau is a big noise in European theatre, which is why you’ve never heard of him. British theatre, like so much else here, is parochial, up itself and loath to admit the existence of anything beyond – despite the professed Euro-fandom of everyone involved in it. It’s an interesting subject and worth reading the trenchant 2020 interview with ex-Young Vic director Joe Hill-Gibbins in The Stage. I suppose it’s partly because none of them ever bothered to learn a foreign language, inter alia. Anyway, the upshot is that none of these interesting directors, from Peter Stein to Calixto Bieito, ever reaches our shores except through the Trojan Horse of opera. 

Mozart wrote Tito in his last summer (aged 35) for the Prague coronation (as King of Bohemia) of the newish Austrian emperor, Leopold. The script had already been used dozens of times to big up various princelings the 1730s, the idea being to highlight the astonishing parallels between the 1st century Titus, famous for his magnanimity (except among Jews, who hate him) and the latest brutish, imbecilic, inbred Max or Fritz clambering onto the throne of somewhere the size of Rutland. The gist is that Titus finds himself the target of various assassination attempts which, as it turns out, are (yes!) masterminded by his fiancée Vitellia and bunglingly carried out by his best friend Sextus. Having thought about it a bit, Titus lets them off.

You can see a thousand productions that take this nonsense at face value, but that wasn’t what they hired Rau for, so it was no great shock when the Swiss director, who currently runs NTGent (the main theatre in Ghent), decided to “interrogate” (as they say) this text a little. No surprise either that he wasn’t entirely convinced by Titus’s glad-handing mercy carry-on. The question is, how to convey this scepticism in a useful way, within the rather rigid frame that opera sets? 

Well, no probs: don’t bother – or rather, since the text won’t be very helpful to your programme, bin it. Geneva’s opera public is very specific and not exactly radical, with all those international freeloaders plus the local Calvinist bourgeoisie, and it’s traditional for the artistic director here to try to rile them up, to which they respond with Gandhian passive resistance, eventually grinding down the poor boss. Aviel Cahn, the new AD, fresh from running the show in Antwerp (and also Swiss), decided to give the opera newbie Rau carte blanche, and Rau has certainly cashed in. Out with the tyranny of what is written by Mozart: he edits, shortens, cuts, splices and interpolates at will (and this is pretty unusual in opera, where the music is still God) to make his point.

It goes without saying that Rau’s ideas are more interesting than the show

Which is, naturellement, that Titus is a fraud, but of a very particular kind. Extensive viewing of various interviews yielded the info – not instantly obvious from the show itself – that Rau has set the piece in a not-very-distant, post-apocalyptic future (yeah, I know), the apocalypse here environmental in nature (Vesuvius erupts during the opera, I expect because of fracking). Following this – and here you must follow me attentively – government has been taken over by artists. The only possible response to this, really, is an eye-rolling  “OMG, Europe!!” – and indeed it seems likely that this is one eventuality we will be spared in art-hating Blighty.

OK, so maybe he’s not being actually literal. Rau’s grown-up point is that art (and not just art) has historically fetishised the working class – simply as a way of keeping the proles in their place. It’s an enormously fruitful topic whose ramifications I leave you to ponder: it is clearly our primary current form of hypocrisy, applying a fortiori to race and gender: talk a fine game, say all the right things about empowering whichever marginalised group you like, and that’s all you have to do: it might as well be the mission-statement of the Guardian. In terms of social class this probably started with depictions of all those happy shepherds back in the 18th century. But hey, fill in your own damn bingo sheet.  

It goes without saying that Rau’s ideas are more interesting than the show (or lecture with slides) he produces, given that we also came hoping to see Mozart’s opera, and we really only get a side view of that. Probably Mozart would agree that the Titus mythology, and script, was so much self-serving balls. And as it happens the boy Leo had lately reversed his late brother Joseph’s plans to free the serfs of Bohemia – not that Mozart necessarily knew that.

What he definitely did know is that Leopold’s sister Marie Antoinette was under house arrest, having recently been picked up at Varennes trying to skip France with her family, and the French revolution, hitherto relatively bloodless, was beginning to look like it might be about to turn nasty. Mozart was no political radical, but The Marriage of Figaro of five years earlier is as blazing a manifesto of spiritual revolution and renewal – sharing many ideals with American and French rebels – as anything his contemporary and secret blood-brother William Blake ever wrote. Tito confronts the crisis this Enlightenment project has led to. The miracle is that it confronts it with the notes of the unadorned, pared-back, pellucid late style that Mozart, a man with nothing to prove, had reached and used for much of the Magic Flute and Requiem. Tito is its apotheosis. 

This Tito – Mozart’s one – is swamped in Rau’s agitprop theatre: actually, you feel that maybe any text would have done for his purposes. In short, Titus (Bernard Richter) is a kind of PR creep (imagine Cameron or Blair with some vestige of aesthetic sensibility) in a man-bun and Sankara (the African Che) t-shirt , Vitellia (Serena Farnocchia) is done up like Marina Abramovic, and their gallery of political art (“Art is Power” their slogan) is surrounded by, and feeds on, a horde of refugees and the dispossessed – who get variously tortured, or foregrounded to tell their stories over the music. Titus’s furrowed-browed torment and grandiose gestures are revealed as so much empty posing: clemency and forgiveness bandied around this gang of cronies who run the show, while everyone else continues to live in shit. Of course, it’s true. It’s just that, as Mozart might have said, it’s not necessarily the slightly less teen-activist point he was trying to make.    

Since we’re here, I might as well say what I take that point to be: Titus’s wager of his mercy against the world’s evil – to forgive everyone and risk the consequences. It’s a beautiful idea in a world fanatically devoted to meeting violence with violence, but you feel Mozart himself is fretting – when his lodestones of reconciliation, forgiveness and humanity are being severely tested by the consummation of liberal ideals – that maybe goodness is not enough after all. But what is the alternative? You feel a new fatalism in Tito, set as a series of intense conversations and soliloquies, unremittingly earnest, which could not possibly exist in any medium (except perhaps Shakespeare) but opera, with its universalising, metaphoric power.

Well, this largely goes begging, as the music’s rhythm and momentum is trashed – which feels more wanton given the presence of the genius young Russian Maxim Emelyanychev at the musical controls. And the sound track is frankly not good, the orchestra distant and not all the singers on great form, but you hear enough to realise what this conductor might have achieved. Anna Goryachova’s conflicted Sextus (written for a castrato) does what she can, deprived by Rau of the emotional stresses that make some sense of the situation, and Cecilia Molinari sang Annius, the opera’s real voice of conscience, with a focus and sensibility to make you prick up your ears and hear the astonishing things Mozart actually has to say.

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