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Posts Tagged ‘Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito’

The most famous opinion about Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito is Empress Maria Luisa’s remark at the premiere that it was nothing but a porcheria tedesca (i.e., a German piece of sh*t) . The fact, however, is that absolutist monarchs could not have liked a work the whole concept of which is compromise. In terms of operatic writing, it blends the highly formal tradition of opera seria with the most recent innovations in terms of theatre and music eagerly apprehended by Mozart in his travels and readings, but most importantly: it is a story about acknowledging the point-of-view of one’s ennemies. As director Peter Sellars says, it is about “sharing the government with those who have tried to kill you”. This thought led him to compare the Titus Vespiasianus in the libretto with Nelson Mandela, whose example of reconciliation in post-Apartheid South Africa has become exemplary in contemporary History.

The idea in itself is thought-provoking and illuminating (and so fitting to libretto involving situations so similar to press conferences, state meetings, public events and even a terrorist attack). As conceived by Mr. Sellars, Tito is a Mandela-like head of government who makes a point in including a white friend (Sesto) in his inner circle. However, he has to deal with a close collaborator, Vitellia, who orchestrates a coup against him by seducing Sesto and pushing him into an attempt against the president’s life. In this version, it is not Lentulus who is killed by mistake. Here, Titus himself is seriously wounded and eventually dies in the end of the opera, just after forgiving his murderers.

It is indeed an interesting idea, but the problem about theatre is that you don’t _stage_ ideas, but _actions_. That is when the whole Dramaturgie concocted by Mr. Sellars starts to sink. First of all, the Felsenreitschule is no regular stage. It is a huge space with a very characteristic and inescapable multileveled colonnade that dwarfs actors and all possibility of zoomed-in acting. Combined with the fact that the director showed no interest in the private affairs of these characters, the plot here is reduced to public utterances the reason of which the audience is unable to understand. One doesn’t see any sexual attraction between Vitellia and Sesto, any sign of friendship between Tito and Sesto, anything behind Vitellia’s bitchiness towards Tito. Even after Sesto’s attempt against Tito’s life, the victim doesn’t seem really concerned about the fact that it was a close friend who has tried to kill him. In the end, the whole purpose of trying to reconcile these people and the country is left to imagination. Titus does not seem to care about any of them. What one ultimately sees on stage is almost nihilistic – the president is dead and everything seems lost. That could be a story, but not this story.  There are beautiful stage effects, but one feels shortchanged, especially when shown a possibility that could have worked beautifully if it had been REALLY staged.

Peter Sellars is not the only person with ideas here. Conductor Teodor Currentzis is a box of Pandora in that department. For instance, sandwiching numbers of Mass K427 and other works by Mozart in the performing edition, which has been shorn of the Tito/Sesto/Publio trio to make space for pages and pages of music in Latin. More problematic is the fact that the recitatives have been butchered in a way that one can hardly understand what goes on in act II, since the only link between one number and the next is a Kyrie or a Qui tollis. When Tito finally says he has forgiven Sesto, the poor fellow makes an expression of surprise. No wonder – all dialogues in which this fact was stated had been deleted!

Although the performance itself has many of the usual niceties associated to Mr. Currentzis – the orchestral playing is multicolored and theatrical, the structural clarity is revelatory, the choral singing is immaculate and there is energy aplenty – his mannerisms are all there too. There is the pervasive fortepiano, a dangerous amount of unwritten pauses, a fancy for overdecoration and a playing with the beat to highlight details that distorts the overall sense of proportion. I had known Mr. Currentzis’s Mozart from recordings and found all of them interesting for a change before I go back to less excentric performances, but live it has the virtue of keeping the audience on the edge of their seats.

In terms of cast, this afternoon was quite below the reputation of the Salzburg Festival, with the exception of French mezzo soprano Marianne Crebassa (Sesto). Her finely focused, firm and warm mezzo sails through Mozartian lines without any hint of effort. She had the audience on her feet in the end of Parto, ma tu ben mio, when she offered flawless coloratura and forceful high notes. Moreover, she has dramatic temper to spare and is a very good actress. Although Jeanine De Bique (Annio) is a soprano, I only discovered that when she sang the solo in the Kyrie from the Mass K 427. Until then, her mezzoish singing had fooled me. She could have caused a more positive impression, though, if her diction was a little bit clearer. The veteran Willard White (Publio) is still in firm voice and found no problem in his aria.

Golda Schultz is, of course, a lovely Mozartian soprano, but one cannot make a Vitellia out of a Servilia. As it was, her singing never went beyond prettiness and she was sorely tested by the tessitura in Non più di fiori. Russell Thomas has a strong, interesting voice, but Mozart is not his repertoire (I had seen him only once before, in the title role of Verdi’s Don Carlo). He sounded ill at ease with the style, needed more breathing pauses than every tenor I have heard in this role and sounded greyish when had to soften his tone. I have the impression he was not at his best voice today. Finally, Christine Gansch has beautiful high notes, but often sounded ungainly and blowsy, especially in her aria.

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When Jérémie Rhorer first started his Mozart opera series in the Théâtre des Champs Élysées, he was not exactly a household name, but now that it is close to reach its end, he has become something of a sure deal for Classical repertoire. I’ve had the luck to see the Così fan tutte in this series and I realize that it wasn’t only Rhorer’s reputation that has increased since then, he himself has developed as a conductor, most notably in the sense that he has found a more fine balance between his ideas and the means available to carry them out. It is curious that I’ve had the same seat both evenings, and the impression of the orchestral sound could not be more different: today, all sections of the Cercle de l’Harmonie were in perfect balance and, if the strings have a touch of astringency, this was put to good purpose in a punchy, vivid sound picture. Actually, if these performances deserved to be recorded (probably in studio, with cast changes), the main reason for that would doubtlessly be Rhorer’s conducting. This was probably the best conducted TIto I have ever heard (including recordings) – the Overture sounded entirely fresh to my ears, with wonderful interplay between strings and wind instruments and truly theatrical flair. His management of tempi proved to be ruled by the quest for the right balance between musical and theatrical values and the eschewal of empty effect. Soft affetti were treated with unusual care – the Servilia/Annio duettino exquisitely touching, while the orchestra could provide Vitellia with some of its most stingy and nervous sounds. I have been often let down in the finale ultimo, but this evening it has surpassed my expectations in the perfect matching of soloists, orchestra and chorus (which could be a bit short in tenor and bass sound during the whole opera).

Everybody wondered how further Karina Gauvin would be singing exclusively on the cream before moving up to the full glass of milk of her lyric soprano. The choice of the formidable role of Vitellia seems like a bold step into a future of new possibilities, even if this deserves some consideration. First, I was surprised to see how wholeheartedly she has embraced the virago attitude, spitting her recitatives with panache and chewing the scenery as if her life depended on it. However, she does not have the physique du rôle for a seductress, especially when sabotaged by an unbecoming gown strangely provided by no other than Christian Lacroix. Second, if Gauvin could delve most naturally in chest voice for the very low notes required by Mozart, she lacks either training or the instincts or even the spiritual disposition when things get high and loud. She tiptoed through every incursion above high a and produced a truly underwhelming account of the acuti of Vengo… aspetatte… . There is no “third”: other than this I’ve found her Vitellia really enjoyable in her rich, flexible soprano. She tackled many difficult runs unusually accurately and showed no reluctance before trills and sang a sensitive and heartfelt Non più di fiori.

Kate Lindsey too was a sensitive Sesto, singing with beautiful sense of line and true ease with mezza voce. Her mezzo remains, though, light for the role and heroic moments took her to her limits, most notably in the end of Parto, ma tu ben mio, when her fioriture left a lot to be desired. Julie Boulianne (Annio) proved to be more generous in the vocal department, her velvety and homogeneous voice easy on the ear. Julie Fuchs has Mozart running through her veins. Her voice is very reminiscent of Barbara Bonney’s, but she finally offered a Servilia even more touching than Bonney’s in both her recorded performances. Robert Gleadow was a positive Publio with very clear divisions, but there is a rattling, nasal quality suggesting the musical theatre rather than the opera that disturbed balance in many ensembles.

Kurt Streit was, for many years, a model of Mozartian singing, as one can sample in his many recordings in this repertoire, but these days seem to be behind him. It is true that the sense of line, the imagination for ornamentation, the elegant phrasing and the clean fioriture are still there, but passaggio is now handled in a glaringly open tone and, when he has to cover his high notes, they turn up tremulous and effortful. His handling of the text was extremely artificial, as if Tito were talking to small children during the whole opera, what made him seem insincere and studied and a bit dull. And that is not the character devised by Metastasio.

Director Denis Podalydès, from the Comédie-Française, had many interesting ideas – starting the performance with a very expressive actress (Leslie Menu) delivering Bérénice’s farewell verses to Titus in Racine’s tragedy before the overture and setting the action in a hotel, where the high echelons of government seem to be interned during a political crisis while the ruler’s authority is being restored. There are too many extras, though, and some intimate scenes sound overcrowded and too many secrets are being recited to an audience of silent roles. The Personenregie is very detailed and all members of the cast keenly follow it, but I am afraid that the Sesto’s mental unbalance after he has set fire to the capitol is too much even for well-intentioned opera singer.

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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.

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