Jump to the content zone at the center

Taipei Symphony Orchestra to present Mozart's final opera

By Gloria Cho
Staff Writer

The entire cast of TSOThe Taipei Symphony Orchestra (TSO) is proud to present Mozart's opera masterpiece as its annual production this coming weekend. Opera seria (serious opera) W.A. Mozart: La clemenza di Tito (The Clemency of Titus), the very last work of the genius musician, will fete local audiences with this seldom-presented masterpiece.

What would an emperor do when faced with betrayal from his trusted people? That is precisely Tito's dilemma. The story begins as the ambitious princess Vitellia, daughter of former Roman emperor Vitellius, attempts to become the queen of current emperor Tito. Unable to fulfill her wish in the beginning, she persuades her admirer Sesto to overthrow the emperor, and therefore triggers a dramatic series of  events. However, as the title suggests, Tito does not ultimately seek retribution but instead graciously grants clemency to his conspirators and is therefore applauded by his people as a merciful king.

Compared with Mozart's other popular operas such as Le Nozze di Figaro and Die Zauberflöte, La clemenza di Tito is seldom presented. Therefore, the first-ever complete production of this performance in Taiwan is expected to provide local audiences a distinctive experience, according to TSO principal conductor Gilbert Varga. 

The TSO has invited the talents of Australian conductor Benjamin Bayl and director Justin Way for its 35th consecutive annual opera production. The 35-year-old Bayl has collaborated with a number of notable figures, including Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Ivan Fischer, and Ivor Bolton. Bayl had also founded and conducted the Saraband Consort, which has been recently active throughout the Europe.

Educated at the University of Sydney and Australia's National Institute of Dramatic Art, Way is an experienced director with his productions including The Beggar's Opera, Alcina, Orlando, Carmen, Semele, The Fairy Queen and Dardanus among a dozen others. 

The performance's plot twists, time frames, settings, and costumes were all sampled from Europe's classical period in order to capture the audience's attention. The spirit of the opera piece is universally fit for all people of all eras, while the detailed portrayal of love, struggle, and mercy within the human range of emotions will stimulate deep audience reflection.

Human emotion applies universally

Icelander singer Finnur Bjarnason, who plays the lead role of emperor Tito, rehearses on the press conference held October 7 in Taipei. W.A. Mozart: La clemenza di Tito features a star-studded ensemble of experienced performers. Icelander singer Finnur Bjarnason, who plays the lead role of emperor Tito, pointed out that there's no specific discrepancy between the approach to roles in opera seria and opera buffa (comic opera).

On playing the role of Tito, Bjarnason said he would try to "play normal and not overact them, just to present them naturally." Bjarnason invites audiences to attend the performance to witness how delicately the emperor illustrates his shift in mindsets as the plot unfolds.

Bjarnason studied singing at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and has accumulated abundant operatic experiences. He took part in the male chorus in Britten's Rape of Lucretia and the role of Tamino in Die Zauberflote at Icelandic Opera. Outside his hometown, Bjarnason played Odoardo in Ariodante at the English National Opera, and the role of Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni at the Glyndebourne Festival, just to name a few.

In addition to his role of emperor, Bjarnason's will be keeping busy in a host of other performances this season including Le Vin Herbe in Lyon, St. John Passion on tour in Spain, and the Prince in Lover for Three Oranges in Graz.

Following up is soprano Soula Parassidis, billed as a "dramatic tigress" by the media and ready to perfectly portray the ambitious leading female character of Vitellia. 

"Every person can relate to or understand the characters - this is something universal," said Parassidis, as she shared her understanding of the opera. She continued, "This opera is rarely done, and it's worthy for the wonderful music and there's a lot to learn."

Hailing from Vancouver, Parassidis is a Greek-Canadian. After finishing her studies at the Vancouver Academy of Music and the University of British Columbia, she became an active soloist who now performs a wide range of repertoires throughout Europe.

Parassidis was also the principal soprano at Oper Leipzig from 2009 to 2012, and has played roles such as Fioriligi in Cosi fan tutte, Alceste in Admeto, re di Tessaglia, and Jenny in Kurt Weill's Aufstieg und fall der Stadt mahagonny. She will also be releasing her first personal solo album of the Mozart and Bel Canto opera arias.

Soprano Soula Parassidis, who plays the ambitious Vitellia (right), rehearses on the press conference held October 7 in Taipei.Annio, good friend to Sesto and the devoted lover of Servilia (Sesto's younger sister), is performed by Wallis Giunta. The Canadian mezzo soprano was applauded by the media as having a "…chocolaty and penetrating mezzo-soprano voice." Awards recognizing her talent include the 2012 Sylva Gelber Music Foundation Award and the top prize at the Ottawa Choral Society New Discoveries Auditions.

Giunta expressed her excitement in taking part of Taipei's first-ever complete production of La clemenza di Tito. "The food, people, and even language barrier are fun," she said. 

Beyond talents introduced from abroad, several local singers also join to enrich the color. Taiwanese soprano Chen Yen-ling performs the role of Servilia. Chen polished her vocal techniques under Professor B. Adele and Professor G. Cigna in Italy after completing her studies at Taipei's Chinese Culture University.

Chen had participated in the Festival Musicale di Camerino in Italy and was honored "Premio d'Onore" in 1996. After returning to Taiwan, Chen performed with the National Symphony Orchestra from 2002 to 2012 taking on the roles of Tosca in Tosca, Donna Anna in Don Giovanni, and Clotilde in Norma.

Baritone Wu Bai-Yu-Hsi plays Publio, Tito's trusted courtier, and will surely impress audience members with his full, resounding voice. Born 1960 in Yilan, Taiwan, Wu maternally inherited aboriginal bloodline can be witnessed through his superb singing talent. Wu has garnered rich stage experiences around the world through roles such as Gugliemo and Don Alfonso in Cosi fan tutte, Don Giovanni in Don Giovanni, Marcello in La Boheme, and Sharpless in Madama Butterfly.

A perfect performance requires a seamless integration of every stage factor. "Rapid scene shifts are the difficult part in this opera piece," pointed out stage designer Tsai Hsiu-chin. "Only an integrated presentation of all factors can result in a complete image," she said.

Tsai is dedicated to art creation and promotion, and has been involved with stage, lighting, and costume design both in Taiwan and abroad. Among her stage productions are Salome, Rigoletto, La Boheme, Aida, Otello, and Turandot.

Tsai's more recent works include the stage design for Turandot, as part of the programs to celebrate the 20th anniversary of theater festival DomStufen-Festspiele this past July. 

TSO expects a new height

Wallis Giunta (right), acting out as Annio, good friend to Sesto and the devoted lover of Servilia (left), acting out Chen Yen-ling, rehearse on the press conference held October 7 in Taipei.Founded in 1969, the TSO is now a professional orchestra with more than 100 members. The TSO offers a wide range of performances ranging from operas, ballets, symphonies, and film music for local audiences. Since its founding, the TSO has presented more than 40 classic operas. These critically acclaimed works include Faust, Carmen, Turandot, and La Boheme.

In recent years, the TSO has frequently participated in international events such as the grand opening of Beijing's National Center of Performing Arts in 2008,  Germany's Saarbrucken Arts Festival in 2009, World Expo 2010 in Shanghai, and 2012's La Folle Journee in the Japanese cities of Kanazawa, Toyama and Tokyo. 

Having cooperated with dozens of talented conductors over the decades, the TSO invited internationally renowned conductor Gilbert Varga with hopes of taking the troupe to new heights.

W.A. Mozart: La clemenza di Tito (The Clemency of Titus) will hit the stage 7 pm this weekend, October 19 and 20 at The Metropolitan Hall. Please call 02 3393-9888 for tickets and further information.