Monday, December 13, 2010

la vendetta di tito

The audience gathers in a stunning entrance hall filled with majestic statues and a massive, ornamented staircase, testaments to the glory of imperial might. The hall darkens, ethereal choral music begins, and projections blaze on the cupola ceiling, with scrolling text and animations telling the story of the Roman emperor Titus and his brief but noble rule.

A triumphant beginning to a sensational, modern re-interpretation of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito? Not quite. That chorus was a cheesy recording; the lame animations projected on the ceiling were barely above Powerpoint-caliber. These low-brow attempts at grandeur and drama continued for another hour and a half in the basilica of the Bode Museum, where Christoph Hagel has staged his (his, not Mozart’s) Titus.

La Clemenza di Tito is not an opera I’m particularly familiar with; I’ve watched a DVD and listened to the excellent Rene Jacobs recording, but never seen it live. I don’t consider it holy scripture, and if a director wants to futz around with the details, it’s his right. But there is a certain point where it stops being “Eine Oper von W.A. Mozart” (as it is billed) and starts becoming “Ein Theaterstück von Christoph Hagel.”

Maybe it’s when you switch all of Mozart’s recitative with spoken dialogue in contemporary German (a reworking of librettist Caterino Mazzolà’s text by Michael Illner). Or maybe it’s when you stage the overture as a flashback to the childhood of the two main characters. Or maybe it’s when you hire actors to speak the recitative, singers to stand behind them and sing the arias, and dancers to add another layer to the circus. But it’s probably when you go ahead and strip the clemency out of La Clemenza: instead of nobly forgiving the betrayal of his friend Sexstus and bride-to-be Vitellia, the emperor orders Sexstus to murder her. Sexstus stabs Titus and the opera ends.

Now that we have wrestled the opera out of the control of the composer, it would only be fair to judge it on its own terms. Does Hagel provide an artistic experience which compares favorably to Mozart’s? Well, no.

Hagel’s Titus gradually delegates away the responsibilities of creating credible characters and dramatic situations by doubling, and then tripling, each role. Actors speak the recitatives; singers sing the arias, standing behind them; a solo dancer (the striking, acrobatic Martin Buczko) slinks along the narrow strip of stage. Thus, the singers are freed from acting and the actors are freed from doing anything but delivering their lines, since it is the responsibility of the dancer to provide any inner emotions. Buczko becomes the only one of an ensemble of twelve actually emoting. It’s a fragile place to be when the only effective character in an opera is a silent dancer.

Initially Hagel uses Mozart’s music as a scaffolding for the German “play” in which most of the narrative takes place, but as the opera progresses, the boundaries between Italian music and German Schauspiel begin to break down. Characters confront their singing doubles, singers switch between Italian and German, and everyone seems to enjoy intruding into the music. During one aria, the members of the ensemble slap their knees rhythmically, do something like the Macarena, and even perform a Reichian clapping pattern, but it doesn’t seem to add anything relevant.

The inner confrontations, the glares between singer and actor, are compelling. But the doubling and tripling of roles, while occasionally enhancing these inner struggles, erodes one of the most important aspects of the original: Mozart’s keen sense of interpersonal relationships, the hierarchies of friendship, love, and class order present in all of his operas. The omnipresence of sex destroys any credibility of love, the constant bickering and backstabbing makes all the friendships implausible, and the dull costumes (all white and purple) don’t clearly establish the class relations between the different characters.

Hagel’s story roughly parallels the opera seria plot written by Metastasio, with the spurned Vitellia attempting to exact revenge on emperor Titus through her lackey Sexstus, Titus’s closest friend. Mozart crafts a heroically forgiving Titus, a cousin to his Sarastro in The Magic Flute; oddly, Hagel’s Titus is also mostly righteous (despite stilted acting) until his final decree of vengeance. Hagel attemps to explain away the problematic Titus/Sexstus relationship with the occasional appearance of the two as young boys, frolicking about the stage and implying that Sexstus’s jealousy began at a young age. It’s a treacly gesture of sentimentality, impregnating the present drama with a soap-opera, Slumdog Millionaire-style backstory (“They grew up as brothers. Now, they are enemies.”).

The music, conceived as the least important part of the production, was merely okay. All of the singers were good, not great; the booming acoustics of the basilica didn’t help anyone’s voices and the resonance destroyed the balance in any ensembles. The medium-sized Berliner Symphoniker played dutifully, conducted by Hagel himself in a showy and superficial reading.

The idea of a completely modern overhaul of Mozart has potential. I would have loved to see a Brechtian re-imagination of each aspect of Clemenza, providing a mirror to contemporary society, transforming Italian arias into clever cabaret ditties with a scrappy miniature ensemble straight out of Threepenny Opera. But re-imagining takes imagination, and Hagel’s hollow spectacle had everything but that.

(photos of "Titus im Bode" courtesy of Oliver Wia; cast list here )

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