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Posts Tagged ‘La Clemenza di Tito’

If Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito is now part of the repertory of the world’s opera houses, James Levine has had a great share of responsibility in it. He saw in Mozart’s last opera a “neglected masterpiece” and helped to make it widely known in a Unitel production directed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle available on VHS, LD and then DVD featuring Tatiana Troyanos in the role of Sesto, a legendary impersonation. In various seasons in the Metropolitan Opera, this opera has seen glamourous casting with the likes of Renata Scotto, Anne Sofie von Otter, Ben Heppner et al.

Then today, for the first time, the opera was performed at the Met with a conductor other than James Levine. As much as Harry Bicket offered us a most reliable account of this score, I still believe Levine’s love for this music would have made some difference. As performed tonight, sometimes expression and grandeur were achieved with the expense of clarity. The old Ponnelle production holds its own better than its twin sister production, the same director’s Idomeneo for the same theatre. Ponnelle’s static and overformal stage direction (here revived by Laurie Feldman – but you just have to see the video to see its fidelity to the original) may look silly for those not used to opera seria, but it is otherwise refreshing not to see the story carelessly adapted into a corporate drama or a former East European dictatorship…

Lucia Popp once said that a singer has only six days per year when his or her voice is in such excellent shape that you know beforehand that everything is going to be perfect. In the title role, Ramón Vargas was clearly not in one of these days. His tenor lacked brightness during the entire first act and he tried to compensate that with upwards decoration that only brought upon an impression of effort. The intermission proved to be healthy for him. The voice sounded more natural and he handled the difficult coloratura in Se all’impero with confidence and accuracy. In the finale ultimo, few other tenors would pierce through the remaining soloists, chorus and orchestra as he did tonight. Considering the positive results, all I can say is that he must be one of the truly great Titos in a good-voice day.

Although Susan Graham sounds these days more like a short soprano than a mezzo, her sensitive account of the role of Sesto is truly touching. She is a natural Mozartian and dealt with the fireworks of the stretta of Parto, ma tu ben mio with panache and could break anyone’s heart with her deeply felt Deh per questo istante solo. In the difficult role of Vitellia, Tamar Iveri had everything in her favour but a more powerful voice. In a smaller hall, she should work to the right effect in this role. At the Met, her rich flexible soprano tended to disappear in ensembles. In the trio Vengo, aspettate, for instance, she was barely hearable. On a positive note, she negotiated the low notes quite commendably and displayed the right temper for the role. Although Non più di fiori is not usually billed as a mad scene, it fulfills the basic requirements for that – and the Georgian soprano explored this concept most successfully.

Both Anke Vondung and Oren Gradus offered reliable performances as Annio and Publio. Only Heidi Grant Murphy twittery and shallow soprano was below the level of acceptability, what is a pity considering the lovely aria reserved for Servilia.

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Showing an ideal view of a score made imperfect by the forces available or opt for an approach compatible with them? This is a question a conductor makes himself when he has a sub par orchestra. I write this after seeing Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito at the Teatro São Carlos in Lisbon (March 1st). Conductor Johannes Stert evidently knows how he would like his Mozart – swift, dramatically rich yet flexible sounds to blend with the voices on stage and every theatrical effect in the score highlighted to boost the stage action, especially sudden shifts of pace. I subscribe to this approach, but in the first minutes of the overture one could see that the orchestra was clearly uncomfortable with that. Mistakes, mismatches, poor tuning abounded throughout, in spite of the musicians’ best efforts.

I make a point of stressing their commitment, for it is a heroic task to give one’s 100% to the world’s most blasé audience in the world. I was truly shocked by those people’s indifference to some very difficult arias, even when they were quite well sung. Truth be said, these singers do not belong to the type of cast that electrifies an audience. The evening’s Vitellia, Adriana Damato, for example, has a touch of Angela Gheorghiu in her voice, a strong low register, powerful acuti and clear divisions. However, all that is handled in too irregular a manner for comfort and in the end she offered a collection of good moments that never built into a coherent performance. Although she was the only Italian in the cast, she is careless about her declamation, along with the other soloists (albeit in more serious levels), what is a serious blemish in an opera notorious for its long recitatives.

Herbert Lippert had a promising career in the early 90’s and then became a second-rate affair. Seeing him live explains that. This is a tenor whose tone is pleasant on the ear (despite some nasal patches), capable of some heft, generally stylish in his phrasing and able to tackle some difficult fioriture (as in Se all’impero). His Tito is far more impressive than, say, Cristoph Prégardien’s or Michael Schade’s (to name two singers recently featured on DVD) – but no first-class tenor would dare to appear before an audience clueless about his Italian text. He clearly ignored the meaning of his lines and would apply some unconvincing emphasis as an Ersatz for proper declamation, not to mention he would even forget Metastasio’s words twice during his arias.

Sophie Marilley offered a most likeable performance as Sesto. Her mezzo-soprano is attractive and firm-toned, she handles the passaggio admirably and phrases arrestingly, but the competition for mezzos is tough and she needs to seriously work on her Italian. Also, she ought to be more exciting in the stretta of Parto, ma tu ben mio.

It is strange to say that the Annio has stolen the show, but the truth is Angélique Noldus offered the most all-round satisfying performance in the evening. Both her arias were sung in the grand manner. I hope to see her again.

Chelsey Schill could be a serviceable Servilia – her voice is pretty enough, but acquires a sour edge in the upper reaches and pitch is not always reliable. She also desperately needs to learn how to move on stage – she is disaster on high heels. Finally, Shavleg Armasi’s chocolate-y bass is promising enough. A bit more legato in his aria and he would have been an exemplary Publio.

When it comes to Joaquim Benites’s production, I am afraid it looks like the high-school version of Jonathan Miller’s staging from Zürich. It is basically the same concept (military régime and art-déco), only with uglier sets and costumes and no – and I mean NONE – stage direction. Singers moved about in a helpless manner doing the most basic gestures to illustrate their feelings (Vitellia would invariably hold herself as struck by a cold draft whenever she would sing the verb gelare – and she sings it a lot during the opera). Also, the transitions from recitatives to numbers would be marked by a pause in the action as if the stage had not been updated to gapless playing. To make things worse, the chorus was made to act like a group of zombies, marching on stage as in a military parade, standing still and singing their lines with the imperturbability of people who are mildly annoyed while the libretto explain that they are panic-stricken (such as in the finale to Act I). A theatre that received Maria Callas in the past should be more attentive to theatrical aspects.

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