A Conspiracy Theory

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Review of 'La Clemenza di Tito', David McVicar, English National Opera, London and 'The Magic Flute', David McVicar, Royal Opera House, London

Both these operas, written in 1791, the last year of Mozart's life, show how the European Enlightenment - the 18th century cultural movement that sought to combat religion and medieval superstition while asserting the primacy of reason and science - influenced him. As far as society and politics were concerned, the Enlightenment proclaimed the supreme values of freedom and equality. The law stood above kings and aristocrats with a constitution that had to maintain a balance of power between the rival institutions.

The rise of the new rationalism reflected the gradual economic ascendancy of the bourgeoisie, the class of merchants and small manufacturers. A further feature of the period was the rise of the 'enlightened despot' - kings, like Louis XIV of France, who sought to implement reforms in order to stave off revolution.

Another such enlightened despot was the Habsburg emperor of Austria, Joseph II, who ruled from 1780 to 1790. He carried out a programme of radical reform from above, curbing the power of the feudal nobility and freeing the peasantry. The outbreak of the French Revolution struck fear into the heart of every ruler in Europe. However Joseph II went into reverse gear, abandoning his reform programme and regressing to absolutism. His brother Leopold II, who continued down the retrogressive path, succeeded him in 1790.

La Clemenza di Tito, written for Leopold's coronation, is set in ancient Rome during the reign of the Emperor Titus. It tells the story of a plot to murder Titus hatched by members of the aristocracy. The plotters are led by Vitellia, who seeks revenge for the murder of her father and her lover Sesto, a friend of Titus. The emperor, however, takes the conspirators' repentance into account and pardons them. The opera thus urges rulers who wish to adopt the principles of good government to be rational and magnanimous: it is a warning to Leopold of dangers once the path of reform is abandoned.

In the 18th century the Freemasons were a leading organisation advocating progress and reform. Mozart joined in 1781 and in The Magic Flute celebrates the values and rituals of Freemasonry. Prince Tamino is asked by the Queen of the Night to rescue her daughter, who has been captured by the priests of the Temple of Wisdom led by Sarastro. It becomes clear however that the priests represent progress and reason whereas the Queen is part of the old regime. Sarastro reveals the Temple's humanism by declaring, 'Tamino is more than a prince, he is a man.' Tamino and Pamina fall in love and are initiated into the priestly order through a series of arduous trials. The Magic Flute contains exquisite arias which express the ideals of the Enlightenment, its aspiration for a world based on love and reason.

Both productions are made by leading opera director David McVicar. In La Clemenza di Tito, the singing is superb, with particularly fine performances from Paul Nilon as Tito, Emma Bell as Vitellia and Sarah Connolly as Sesto. The orchestra, conducted by Roland Boer, expresses clearly the work's feelings and dramatic tension. But the set, consisting of Chinese screens - suggesting an emperor aloof from his people - is perhaps not quite in the spirit of Mozart's Tito.

McVicar's The Magic Flute, revived by Lee Blakeley, is equally successful with strong visual sets and suitably dark lighting. Will Hartmann as Tamino is warm and forthright and Anna-Kristina Kaappola as the Queen of the Night reveals the strength and range of her voice, articulating clearly the famous high notes. Rebecca Evans is convincing in her passionate and forceful rendering of Pamina while Simon Keenlyside as Papageno, the comic bird-catcher and Tamino's plebeian foil, is outstanding both in his singing and acting. The orchestra under Charles Mackerras plays with superb pace and emotion.