Thanks to James Levine’s invaluable advocacy, the Metropolitan Opera House has probably the world record in of performances of La Clemenza di Tito, the culmination of the opera seria genre, Mozart’s black pearl where tradition is reviewed and new perspective are hinted at. This is reason enough to find interest in every revival of this work in the Lincoln Center’s opera house, where casts of indisputable glamor have been assembled for 30 years. “Revival” is no random word here – since the 1984 house première, Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s production has been on duty. I myself saw it in 2008 and wondered then if it would still be around in the near future. It has been a positive surprise to found it interestingly revamped five years later.
Spielleiter Peter McClintock deserves credit for reading the libretto anew and bring to the fore so many interesting aspects in the text that made characters far more three-dimensional than in the past. Even for someone who knows this almost by heart, I could find food for thought here. Two examples:
a) I have always thought that Non più di fiori is some sort of twisted mad scene. Normally, a character would fantasize in such a moment about a happy ending that is not going to happen; Vitellia is, however, no victim – so she fantasizes about the tragic ending that is not going to happen, the final section of her rondo some kind of acute episode of infantilization, in which she lulls herself into being passive after being dangerously active. Here, Vitellia is a spoiled brat from moment one and her childish narcissism makes the volte-face a logical conclusion – as she said, she made it all for love (for Tito), the revenge plot and also its final confession. A brilliant piece of casting made it easy to see all that.
b) Seductive as Vitellia might be, it had never struck me before today that nobody would be talked into a plot like that if he had not fantasized about it himself before – Vitellia being the liberating externalization of his suppressed desire of dragging Tito’s moral excellence to the mud. Here Tito appears to be carefree and content in the company of Sesto and Annio, who seem to be ill-at-ease near the Emperor, rather indulging him than enjoying being there. When Tito say things like “By marrying your sister, I’ll shorten the infinite gap set by the gods between you and me”, you could almost hear the “what a jerk…” in Sesto’s thoughts. The surprise here is that, when these two friends finally can express their feelings without pretty words, this is the moment when they discover how important they are to each other, an especially sad discover for Tito, whose main longing had always been to find someone to whom he could talk “at eye level”. Here casting was not very helpful to show all this, but the director’s hand could be felt at least.
By brilliant casting for Vitellia I meant Barbara Frittoli. Her voice has seen more exuberant days, especially when things get high or fast, and she has to cheat in some perilous moments, but the tonal quality is inimitably warm and full, she handles the low tessitura famously and everything has some sort of glamor. What makes her so special, though, is her ability to make Vitellia some sort of classical Scarlett O’Hara (or Rossella O'[H]ara, as she is called in Italy). The contrast to Elina Garanca’s Sesto is telling – the Latvian mezzo sings with immaculate poise, technique and sense of style and is often sensitive too (a beautiful Deh per questo), but doesn’t really inhabit the text – the important accompagnato Oh dei, che smania è questa being the less effective moment of her performance. In his first aria, Giuseppe Filianoti seemed to promise a bumpy evening, but he would eventually settle for something less awkward. His is an interesting voice for the role, but having to sing Mozartian lines takes him to the limits of his technique – the results being more accomplished than elegant, musically illuminating or just pleasant to the ears. If you want a forceful, bright sound, Gregory Kunde in the broadcast from Aix (2011) offered something far more polished. But there is a very positive side to Filianoti’s performance – his crystal-clear diction, his intent of making sense of his recitatives and some emotional urgency in his scenes with Sesto.
I have seen Kate Lindsey only once in a small role, but her Annio made me feel like hearing more. Although the voice itself lacks some personality, she makes the most of it in true Mozartian phrasing – and she is a good actress too. Lucy Crowe, a creamy-toned Servilia, lacked nuance in the exquisite act I duettino, but deserves the highest praise for her haunting performance of S’altro che lagrime, probably the most moving I have ever heard since Colin Davis’s recording with Lucia Popp (my six or seven readers will probably understand that this comparison is the top-level compliment in this blog).
Harry Bickett was the conductor I happened to see in 2008. Then I wrote that “expression and grandeur were achieved at the expense of clarity”. Not in this broadcast – the Met orchestra’s fullt-toned flexibility that evening is something to marvel. The conductor showed also deepened understand of this score’s profile, creating the atmosphere to each scene with precise accents and sense of threatre. Although the house chorus cannot compete with the level of accuracy of a Monteverdi Choir, their hushed Ah, grazie si rendano was a beautiful moment at any rate.