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.