The stoned Mussolini Tito and his subtexty friends Act I (Zurich, 2005)

  • Tito: Jonas Kaufmann
  • Vitellia: Eva Mei
  • Sesto: Vesselina Kasarova
  • Annio: Liliana Nikiteanu
  • Servillia: Malin Hartelius
  • Publio: Gunther Groissbock

Conductor: Franz Welser-Most | Chorus & Orchestra of the Zurich Operahouse 24/27 June, 2005

Director: Jonathan Miller

The Singspieling, the Cernobyl Reactor #4 setting, the miscasting, the incongruous acting, the most far out Deh, per questo instante solo… Based on what I read about it I put off getting the DVD for the longest time – until my latest Clemenza madness. I finally told myself “ffs, dehg, just get the damn thing, what’s the worst that could happen? It’s not going to snap and bite you where the sun don’t shine…” Although it arrived on my doorstep on 26 March, I gave it a wide berth until the 29th. After which I ended up watching it on a daily basis. Fascinating stuff! It’s so meta-happy I just couldn’t write a 500 words post on it.


Have you ever seen that Clemenza production where everybody is dressed/acts like a slob? Of course not, there was never such a production. All Clemenzas are fashion conscious, because during the Flavian dynasty Roman society was particularly obsessed with appearance. Not really, I don’t think directors get quite that literal. It’s more likely because the story (and the music) implies glamour. Vitellia can’t sing Deh, se piacer mi vuoi dressed in hand-me-downs and even the most ball-less Sesto couldn’t wear t-shirt and jeans to an Imperial stabbing. In this production characters are imprisoned by their elegance as much as they are coerced by their internal torments. In other words, style stylises. Perfection as emotional prison.

Reactor of Doom

I wondered about the symbolism of the char-black Campidoglio which works both as permanent stage design and a constant reminder of… something. Everybody’s clothes match it, which tells me it’s an element of style. I think it’s the literal expression of the inescapable emotional prison. But aside from symbolism, it’s also an opportunity to sneak a staircase into the production. The staircase is the backbone of most stage design and a true darling of opera stage design. It gives characters something to do during interludes and recits. It also helps choreographs with arranging people on stage in a manner pleasing to the eye (or so choreographs think).


Somebody needs to fess up: who had the brilliant idea of casting a belcanto specialist as Vitellia? Is Emma Kirkby next? Not that she can’t do Mozart – I like Mei’s Countess and her Konstanze ain’t bad either. In fact, I rather like Mei – but is she miscast here or what? Pobrecita.

No less is suave boy JK miscast, although I’m sure his legions of fans could write novels on how that’s not true. But he is. Just listen to that aircraft carrier voice attempt to swing the wicked trills on Se all’impero or the side-splittingly phrased Servillia… Augustaaaa… Imperatrice! He sounds like a pervy geek boy after he lured the star cheerleader to the boiler room. I just about busted a gut laughing as he suddenly interrupted not-so-virtuous Sesto with his Del piu sublime soglio. Where is everybody rushing1? Maybe this is Welser-Most’s way of helping a brother out with the daunting task of acting the recits. If anything, this production teaches us that the two are very, very different indeed. A good singing-actor does not necessary a good actor-actor make.


The recits were heavily abbreviated, some would say mercifully. I’m not so quick on that. I enjoy recits when done properly. Apparently Singspieling Italian language operas has been common practice in the German speaking world from the dawn of creation. In any case, it turns out that speaking recits in heavily accented Italian isn’t the worst offence against my taste. I mean aside from Annio and Publio, who sound like they failed declamation multiple times. Nikiteanu, whom I find hysterically funny as a comedian, didn’t make a smooth transition to drama. In fact, there was no transition to speak of. It’s true that I’d rather have a joke cracking Annio than an overly earnest one but dear god… there are some emotive lines here which Nikiteanu delivers with the subtlety of a terrain leveler SEM. Plus she seems convinced Italian and Romanian have a similar flow. Never mind, I still love her Dorabella and Cherubino – strokes of genius, those two.


About dehggial

Mozart/Baroque loving red dragon

Posted on April 4, 2014, in 1001 musings on la clemenza di tito, mozart and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I just watched act 1 of this. Did miller have a lobotomy before directing it? I’ve seen nothing but characters walk on and walk off and park and bark in front, as you point out, of a theatrical cliche. Also could someone give the costume designer “Military Tailoring for Dummies”? Tito appears to be wearing British service dress (with the badges of a first lieutenant) over a black shirt and tie. If you want to suggest fascist Italy at least give him a stand up collar on his tunic. Gah!

    • MIller appears to have been inspired by that Basel production from back in 1984. I think it’s funny Tito never made it beyond first lieutenant, but he’s really a hippie kind of fascist dictator 😉 I’ve yet to see an opera production where costumes were accurate, I think they just go with whatever fits the general idea of the production.

      • >I think they just go with whatever fits the general idea of the production.

        I think that’s largely true but so often it doesn’t fit. Any designer planning to do 1930s military should be made to watch the McKellen Richard III which does the job brilliantly.

  2. Only in Dreams.

    I love your style of writing. I’m sad to say that I’m completely ignorant on this topic but I did enjoy reading it anyway. I’m very curious to find out more about Opera.

    “characters are imprisoned by their elegance as much as they are coerced by their internal torments. In other words, style stylises. Perfection as emotional prison.”

    How very insightful. I’ve been wanting to write about the dangers of focusing too much on appearance and the metaphor of perfection being a prison is so completely spot on that I think I’m going to be at a loss for words.

    • cheers 🙂 Opera can be fun but you need to find it on your own. I used to hate it with a passion and then one day things just clicked.

      Glad you enjoyed that metaphor, you can use it if you want. No need to be at a loss for words 😉

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