Clemenza’s Young Guns (Theater an der Wien, 10 May 2014)


Theater an der Wien’s Young Artists’ Program has put on I think 5 productions in the past year and we got a live streaming of the last show of the last production, namely Clemenza. Unsurprisingly for Theater an der Wien, it is a very conceptual reading. It felt a bit clunky in the beginning but eventually it was brought together by its coherence.

  • Tito: Andrew Owens
  • Vitellia: Çigdem Soyarslan
  • Sesto: Gaia Petrone
  • Servilia: Gan-ya Ben-gur Akselrod
  • Annio: Natalia Kawalek-Plewniak
  • Publio: Igor Bakan

Conductor: Rubén Dubrovsky | Bach Consort Wien
Director: Alberto Triola


Everyone wears them, except for Tito, who wears armor on his right arm instead. Servillia’s is naturally the smallest mask. Sesto uses his to shield himself from Vitellia’s influence. Interestingly, Annio gets two masks. Also interestingly, Sesto and Vitellia’s are funerary masks1. That most everyone, most of the time is dishonest is, of course, central to this opera.


There’s funny business with a mirror, which Vitellia uses to check herself during Deh, se piacer mi vuoi. Later on, Sesto checks himself in the same mirror during ah, che poter, o, dei, donaste alla belta bit from Parto. Whose belta?

Tito busts

They come out of the sky and press down on the characters during Act I finale. Conceptually Captain Obvious but visually rather neat.

This is, then, neither a traditional production, nor a contemporary one. It’s symbolic, which allows it to echo everything at once, from contemporary-ish costumes to Ancient Greek theatre. Maybe I am very easy going with regards to Clemenza, but I think it’s the kind of opera that can stand many different incarnations without losing integrity.


Act I

Overture: jaunty, very animated.

Ma che, sempre l’istesso: the curtain rises to reveal our favourite schemers scheming away. Vitellia is sat on a circular marble settee, whilst Sesto is leaning against it behind her. As she starts her bitching, he puts some distance between them.

The tiny stage is bare save for the settee, which is lit from above to great effect. Both characters are clad in grey costumes. Vitellia is wearing a one-sleeve grey dress and Sesto the sort of combo popular in the ’80s sci-fi films – sleeveless heavy fabric jacket and matching trousers with boots plus mohawk and dramatic eye-makeup. It being 2014 it’s not easy to pinpoint just what the mohawk stands for. If it was 1984 I’d have said Sesto is a rebel. Since then the mohawk (and Egyptian-style make-up) has been co-opted by the mainstream in the same way Guns’n’roses t-shirts have come to share demographics with Hello Kitty paraphernalia. My conclusion then is that 2014-Sesto is a retro-loving trendy boy. Vitellia herself, with her jet black severe bob must be a dominatrix.

Come ti piace, imponi: the both of them are holding masks to address each other. It’s a bit talk-to-the-hand, a bit Greek theatre, a bit Obvious Avenue. Yes, they both have ulterior motives but we get that even in a tired traditional production such as the Met one2. The mask thing does get better but at this point it’s quite annoying.

The two of them each stand at one side of the stage and sing, without watching each other, which I personally don’t like, even when the director is trying to make a point. The best thing about this initial mask set-up is how Sesto holds his mask: obviously in an effort to block Vitellia’s influence. Fair point there. They both sing and mix well, if a bit light weight.

Two-mask/double agent Annio shows up with the news about Berenice’s leaving. I was immediately struck by Kawalek-Plewniak’s boyishness and excellent body language as a male character. There is a good Sesto in there in the future if the voice fits. For now Kawalek-Plewniak sounds girly but no girlier than many Sestos past.

Hope compels Vitellia to rethink her attitude to Tito. For some reason Sesto does not say o, virtu! in praise of Tito’s strength. He just looks on surprised.

Deh, se piacer mi vuoi: Vitellia starts to put the moves on Sesto. Very good furniture trick when she splits the marble settee between Sesto and Annio. She whips out the mirror and admires herself during non me stancar con questo molesto dubitar. She proceeds to do all sorts of things to Sesto, among which giving him her mask to adore and stroking his arms in a more obviously seductive manner. It’s clever but not exactly sizzling. So is her singing. She’s very cold at this point but it’s correctly sung. Sesto is much like a puppy here.

Deh, prendi un dolce amplesso: neat, they mix well but neither voice is striking.

March/Serbate dei custodi: no March/Serbate dei custodi. Maestro has arranged Clemenza for chamber orchestra and has done away with the chorus. Bold move but also making a lot of sense given the tiny theatre (under 300 seats), young singers and other resources he might or might not have had at his disposal. I miss all the choruses as they are gorgeous and add imperial oomph to this otherwise intimate piece. Still, Clemenza works without them as well, because it’s such an intimate piece.

Tito shows up alone and a matching marble throne is brought in between the settees. He looks a lot like everyman, not a bad idea. He sports a cap with a gold Oriental-style chain link. Tito spent his youth in Judea, so not that far fetched. He doesn’t say much but acts very good natured and jumps to how he wants to reward Sesto, who looks distressed. Annio puts on a brave face but by the time Tito sings Del piu sublime soglio he’s rolled up in a small ball next to Sesto. Tito’s singing is not bad.

Annio is left alone to mourn his bad luck. He gets quite worked up. When Servillia shows up he gets properly overemotional. Servillia looks confused but not overly so.

Ah, perdonna: Annio pushes the settee to create a wall between him and Servillia and they sing over it. By the end she takes his hand. It’s moving. Tito looks on in a friendly manner. Good singing, they mix well.

Ah, se fosse intorno al trono: pleasantly surprised by Servillia’s honesty, Tito sings to her this beautiful aria. He sounds well within the limitations of his voice and experience. That is, Owens’ is a nice voice but maybe nothing to write home about. He’s very committed, though.

As he walks off, Servillia has a charming tiny smile which I found refreshing. It’s good to see a very young Servillia, around the same age as the character. Innocence and youthful freshness are always hard to convey as one ages, especially as most of the time directors want Servillia to stick it to Vitellia in one way or another.

Vitellia comes in holding up her mask. She taunts Servillia in a cold and calculated tone. Servillia makes her way out as soon as she can. Vitellia gets rather irate. The acting is a bit general but not off. Hapless Sesto shows up and she pounces on him. There is another clever furniture trick: Vitellia pushes the settees together to effectively fence him in whilst verbally goading him on. She’s sarcastic, Sesto is confused. He’s a bit of a lame-o Sesto but Petrone infuses him with a certain charm that isn’t unpleasant. I can see him being weak because he’s so young and inexperienced, whereas other whipped Sestos should know better.

Parto: those twin partos always benefit from a bit of attention to detail and I’d have liked more here. But, like I said, this Sesto is young and whipped. Sesto tries to placate Vitellia, who we see is smirking in self satisfaction and even allows him to touch her. Pretty well acted, their connection isn’t bad. The first guardamis are quite expressive. Vocally I think most of the stuff is in place but coloratura needs to be infused with emotion. I know Wolfie needed to give Bedini something to wow his audience with but let’s not forget it’s Sesto’s turning point.

Vengo… Aspetatte!… Sesto…: Maestro switches to super speed tempo for this jumpy trio. It’s the first time we hear Publio and it’s not bad at all. The three of them blend well, with Annio only a bit under-powered. Vitellia holds her own, although her top notes are somewhat thin. She looks anguished, but, again, in a rather general way.

Act I finale

Petrone’s acting during Sesto’s monologue isn’t bad at all. Sesto finally loses his mask. His youth comes off again to good effect. He’s in over his head. He faces the back of the throne as he is being tormented by his conscience. When he decides to go through with the terrible deed, he pulls a red veil over the throne. The effect is quite striking  considering the simple means. It’s even better when the throne/settee combo revolves and we see it’s Vitellia’s veil and she had been hiding on the throne all along, possibly to make sure he’s doing as told.

There’s a general commotion as each character comes in and loses his/her mask. Publio sounds even more impressive here. This is a very authoritarian Publio, without being over the top. Excellent job, Bakan. Whilst scrambling to get away, Vitellia manages to topple the throne over herself. Her coldly whispered taci, forsennato! is excellent as Sesto is about to give himself away. The other characters cower as Tito busts come down from the sky. The biggest one is about to crush Sesto. All this without choir and the result is pretty damn good.

About dehggial

Mozart/Baroque loving red dragon

Posted on May 11, 2014, in 1001 musings on la clemenza di tito, mozart, those two austrians and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. I like badgers.
    How do you get that little back arrow thingy? Is it embedded in your theme?

  2. I like them too. I hated the cull.

    You mean the back arrow in the footnotes? That one comes with the footnotes, I think, The previous theme had it as well.

  3. Regie, or Not Regie?

    I finally watched this whole opera. I rather liked it, although the masks got a bit irritating. I thought the singing was quite good, and I especially liked Andrew Owens as Tito. I don’t know about you, and of course we have these conversations about realism in opera (or the lack thereof) but I never thought of Sesto as a guy–a lesbian maybe… I do wish they’d not cut the chorus. Even if they had a quartet (or octet) offstage, I think it would have been better, particularly in the two finales, where there is a lot of antiphonal stuff between the soloists and the chorus. I wont be pulling this one out to rewatch too often but I am glad I got to see/hear it. I am off now to track down some more Andrew Owens stuff.

    • oh, Sesto as a guy, one of my big hang-ups. Back in April I wrote an anguished entry I never posted (still have the draft) on the subject, upon finding out about FF’s stint as Sesto. Funnily, the thing that bothered me most was that Sesto had a beard! I think regardless if he’s sung by a man or a woman, Sesto should stay androgynous.

      If we think that Mozart wrote the role for a man, then what can we do but try to accept the possibility? I’ve always prided myself on being open minded but certain things are harder to allow for than others. I wonder how it would’ve been had I first seen a Tito production with a countertenor Sesto instead of the now traditional mezzo.

      I think, though, you’re right. There is something about Sesto that’s not exactly manly – but not in the “he’s lame” way (because he’s not). Maybe he’s very in touch with his feminine side? He grew up with a sister, after all. In any case, I think he’s at least “a bit” bisexual. Then there’s this thing about characters that might actually be gay. The more I think about it, the more interesting it sounds as it does seem to apply to some.

      Either way we look at it, I don’t think it’s possible to ignore the fact that Tito, Sesto and Vitellia have something unusual going on.

      • Regie, or Not Regie?

        I wonder what it would be like (and what directors would do with it) if Mozart had repeated his Idamente stunt and rewritten Sesto later as a tenor? (I kind of like a tenor Idamente, but that’s another discussion…)

        • The interesting thing with Idamante is it seems hard to find a good match regardless of fach. I suppose he could’ve re-written Sesto, seeing as how the opera was quite popular in the couple of decades after his death and the times were changing.

  1. Pingback: Neues aus Wien | Vienna News

  2. Pingback: Kultur in Wien | Vienna News

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: