Later this month (March 2014), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito will be heard for the first time in Malta in a brand new staging produced by Teatru Manoel. This opera is being presented over four consecutive nights between the 20th and the 23rd March  and a double cast has been engaged to cover all four performances. The artistic direction and costume design are in the hands of Teatru Manoel’s artistic director Kenneth Zammit Tabona, who has conceived this production together with Denise Mulholland. Experienced opera director Harry Fehr has been brought over to oversee the stage direction.
Why choose Mozart, and why this particular opera? “My idea was to stage an opera which would be commensurate with the size and ambience of the Manoel Theatre,” Kenneth Zammit Tabona explains. “Mozart’s dramatic works are well-suited to our theatre, but I wanted to avoid operas which have already been done in Malta before – such as The Magic Flute or the Mozart – Da Ponte collaborations. With these parameters in mind, Clemenza appeared to be the natural choice”.
La Clemenza di Tito dates from the final year of Mozart’s life and is one of the more intriguing of his operas. The composer had nearly completed his final opera Die Zauberflöte, when he was approached by impresario Domenico Guardasoni to write a new work for the coronation of Leopold II, Holy Roman Emperor, as King of Bohemia. The chosen text, originally written by the great Pietro Metastasio in 1734, and adapted for Mozart by Caterino Mazzola, had already been set by several prominent composers, including Caldara and Gluck. However, Mozart and Guardasoni felt that the libretto’s political undertones were appropriate to the occasion and that its traditional opera seria structure would meet Leopold’s Italianate tastes. Mozart wrote the two-act opera in a matter of weeks (or just 18 days, if we are to rely on Mozart’s first biographer Niemetschek). We have conflicting reports of how it was received at its first performance. This work however remained popular for many years after Mozart’s death and that it was his first opera to reach London, where it was premiered on the 27th March, 1806. Although it is still not one of the best known of the composer’s theatrical compositions, over the past years it has undergone something of a revival.
Arguably, the protagonist of Clemenza is not the eponymous Tito, but Vitellia, daughter of deposed Roman emperor Vitellio. Blinded by her ambition to become empress, Vitellia convinces Sesto to betray and assassinate his friend the Emperor Titus, who will soon be marrying Sesto’s sister Servilia. The plot is discovered and Sesto is condemned to death, but in a great show of generosity (the “clemency” of the title) Tito pardons both his vacillating friend Sesto and the scheming Vitellia.
Tito and Vitellia were actual historical figures, but the plot details are fictitious. As Kenneth Zammit Tabona points out to me, Metastastio was not the first writer to use ancient Rome as a source of inspiration for his fiction. Nor would he be the last. “Robert Graves immediately comes to mind, and I must admit that my image of Vitellia bears more than a passing resemblance to Livia in Graves’s I, Claudius”.
La Clemenza di Tito then, does not present us with history, but rather with an 18th century reimagining of Ancient Rome. To express this concept effectively, Zammit Tabona hit upon the idea of using as stage scenery a reproduction of two of Giambattista Piranesi’s celebrated engravings of Roman remains. La Veduta dell’Arco di Tito serves as backdrop to the First Act and is replaced in the Second Act by the Veduta dell’Anfiteatro Flavio, detto il Colosseo. The stage flooring, on the other hand, will feature a reproduction of Michelangelo’s designs for the Campidoglio. The Roman setting is unmistakeable, but it will also be immediately clear that this is antiquity as seen through the eyes of later artists.
The preparation of the scenery and stage props has been entrusted to Mario Bartoli, a long-standing scenographer at the Teatru Manoel who learnt his art at a Venetian bottega and honed it over tens of productions at the Theatre. I meet him in a large hall at the Mediterranean Conference Centre complex, where Bartoli and an assistant are busy painting the backdrop to Act 2. A half-finished monochrome reproduction of the Colosseum greets me, stretched horizontally on the floor. It is already impressive as it is, let alone when completed. “Scenography is an art”, Bartoli declares, “but it’s literally back breaking!” He explains to me that the challenge set by this Clemenza is two-fold. On the one hand, as in any theatrical production, the backdrop must be painted keeping in mind that the audience will be seeing it from a distance. In other words, the scenery will have to work from the audience’s perspective.
In this particular production however the real difficulty lies in reproducing as faithfully as possible the Piranesi etchings which provide the scenery to the opera. “These works of art are so well known that if we depart from the originals it would be immediately apparent.” And so, apart from some minor amendments to adapt the engravings to the size of the Theatre, an enlarged version of these famous etchings (27 feet by 30 feet, to be exact) will find its place on the Manoel’s stage.
Surely, with today’s technological advances it would have been much easier just to use video projections? Bartoli looks sceptical. “Because of its structural limitations it is difficult to use light projections at the Manoel. In any case however, using projections would not really fit the style of the production, which visually retains many traditional elements”.
This concern to evoke the period of the opera’s composition is also reflected in Kenneth Zammit Tabona’s costume designs. He describes them a “vaguely Directoire”, a reference to the elegant neo-Classical style which was expressed in the architecture, fashion and decorative arts of late 18th century France. Zammit Tabona however did not wish to follow this style slavishly and he admits that there is also an element of fantasy in his drawings. “Take Sesto, for instance. Although he wears a military uniform, I’ve given him a very long train which would not have featured in authentic military apparel. Sesto’s part was originally sung by a castrato and castrati such as Farinelli generally wore long trains when they performed, hence my design”.
Incidentally, in two of the four performances, the role of Sesto will be sung by leading countertenor David Hansen alternating with mezzo soprano Sian Cameron on the remaining two nights. “Mozart himself gave the option of using a mezzo instead of a countertenor or castrato. We thought it would be interesting to use both in our production. It hints at a certain sexual ambiguity in the character of Sesto, who is torn between his close friendship with the Emperor and his attraction towards Vitellia”.
Zammit Tabona adds that this production gives a psychological reading of the opera and that this, in turn, inspired his costume designs. Servilia’s attire, for example, is very flowy and features pale blues, giving her an almost “girly” look. On the other hand, Vitellia is as “imperial” as Tito himself, if not more, with her predominant colours being reds, purples and gold. “Camilleri Paris Mode, who are sponsoring the fabric and materials for the costumes, managed to source for me this extremely rich red and gold brocade which is exactly what I had conceived for this role”.
As it happens, I do get to see and hold the fabric that Mr. Zammit Tabona is describing. On a rainy February afternoon, I make my way through one of the back doors of the Manoel Theatre, up the stairs past the hundreds of costumes which comprise the Theatre’s wardrobe and into an inner sanctum where seamstress Dorothy Ebejer is putting the finishing touches on the principal characters’ attire.
Ms Ebejer tells me that Kenneth Zammit Tabona gave her his designs back in October and that she starting working on them straight away. “A production featuring brand new and specifically designed costumes requires months of preparation”. Ms Ebejer describes the fabric as amongst the finest she has ever worked on – “a pleasure to hold”. The material itself lends richness to the visual aspect to the production. There is no doubt that against the monochrome backdrop of the scenery, the protagonists, particularly Tito and Vitellia with their striking floral-themed capes, will stand out to stunning effect.
As I leaf through a copy of the sketches, penned in the Zammit Tabona’s distinctive style, I cannot help being impressed at seeing them taking shape under Ms Ebejer’s hands. How does she go about translating the designs into the actual costumes? “This is a process which involves constant collaboration with the designer”, she explains. “Obviously, a sketch cannot indicate all the details in a character’s attire, and so as I work I often seek Kenneth’s guidance to ensure that his vision is being respected”. I learn that the design process itself is organic. With the material actually in hand, for instance, initial ideas may be tweaked to gain maximum results.
One may not realise that the seamstress’s job continues up to the performance itself. “The foreign soloists have sent me their measurements, but some alterations may still be needed for a better fit”. More importantly, the dress rehearsals will be the first opportunity to confirm whether the costumes “work” on stage. This will involve co-ordination with the director and choreographer to ensure that the clothes do not hinder the movement of the singers and participants and may lead to last minute adjustments. This production is additionally challenging given that it will use a double cast. “Obviously this means that every costume needs to be prepared in two sizes.”
The manpower needed to stage an opera is mind boggling. Apart from the cast of soloists, which comprises an interesting mix of distinguished foreign artists, seasoned local singers and upcoming soloists, this production will also feature the Teatru Manoel Opera Chorus trained by Alexander Vella Gregory and the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Damiano Binetti. One should not forget however all those who work behind the scenes to make such a production possible.
Unsurprisingly, the costs involved are also impressive. But artistic director Kenneth Zammit Tabona is undeterred. “It would have been cheaper, much cheaper, to present an imported, ‘off-the-shelf’ staging. But my vision is for the Teatru Manoel to mount an original operatic production at least once a year, a production which can actively involve Maltese artists in each of its stages and aspects, a production which can complement the recently launched Teatru Manoel Youth Opera venture by providing a platform for young singers. Just as with the Valletta International Baroque Festival, I am confident that if we present a quality product it will draw interest even from beyond our shores.”
An ambitious project? Undoubtedly. But with La Clemenza di Tito it promises to get off to a royal start.