An endowed residency brought guest director Michael Hidetoshi Mori from Tapestry Opera in Toronto, one of Canada's leading producers of new opera. One felt his skill even before a note was heard. Rather than stale budget verismo, he and Vincent Lefevre set the stage with six triangular columns on wheels. Painted bronze and lit with different colours, they were pushed around to construct spaces reflective of the characters'psyche--an imposing colonnade, a glorious golden wall behind the throne, a whirling machine, and a chamber that constricted around the reluctant Sesto, bullying him into committing treason. Behind them was a black wedge of seats for the chorus, which doubled as palace ramparts when the city burned below. Entrances and exits were opportunities for meaningful action rather than something to just get through. Simple and effective, the staging was a case study of limited means employed with intelligence, something still lacking on Montreal's stages.
Tito was commissioned for the coronation celebrations of Leopold II of Bavaria, and the credibility-testing kindness of its titular emperor can be read as instructions for the new absolute monarch: "please oh please reign like this, your highness." Tito sweedy endures, first a series of romantic rejections, then his best friend trying to stab him, but his virtue never curdles. After an angry, if brief, lapse in judgement, with sword in hand he declares that if he can't rule by love he won't rule by fear. Read slowly and pompously, Metastasio's libretto, adapted by Caterino Mazzola, easily becomes a bromide to regal self-control served by cardboard characters as exciting today as an 18th-century book on etiquette (though it is intriguing to imagine its political charge at the premiere in 1791, with the Ancien Regime in flight). Also, Tito is one of the dusty last gasps of opera seria, which in Mozart's deft hands becomes something more; the usual grim succession of da capo arias is replaced by a variety of accompanied recitatives, choruses, trios, and a magnificent quintet. There are moments as dramatic and as difficult as anything else in his work, and even if the characters remain archetypes it only really drags in Act II--before Tito begins to struggle with his duty to uphold the law that has sentenced Sesto to death--then swells to the finale: a bath of praise for the good god-king.
The singers were outstanding, especially the remarkable young mezzo-soprano Maddie Studt as Sesto. The voice, poignant and almost weighdess in its towering of the role's heights, cast a hush over the room. The famous "Parto, parto" was tragically lovely, and the duet to friendship with mezzosoprano Eva-Marie Cloutier as Annio had a delicious complexity of vocal tones. Tenor Olivier Gagnon was bashful as the Emperor and sang with similarly understated, complementary and earnest tone. You're not supposed to warm to power-hungry Vitellia, who orders the smitten Sesto to win her by regicide (though in Metastasio's world even the villain has a conscience and listens to it), but even so, Avery Lafrentz's dominating soprano stumbled into some discomfort; more sonic weapon than siren. Soprano Elisabeth Boudreault was buttery as Servilia.
Brass and winds were excellent, especially the delectable obbligati written for clarinet and basset horn. The strings were patchy in parts, but the orchestra conducted by Stephen Hargreaves gave a well-seasoned and dynamic performance overall, driving forward like a happy colt.
The only misstep was an attempt at humour in the finale when the chorus hoisted placards with "Tideau" written on them. The room winced.