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24.1.07

La Clemenza di Tito: The Last Word?

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Mozart, La Clemenza di Tito, M. Padmore, B. Fink, Freiburger Barockorchester, René Jacobs (released on September 12, 2006)
The Mozart Year brought us many things, including a renewed appreciation for La Clemenza di Tito. This year Ionarts has reviewed the re-release of the Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production on DVD, heard a live production at Washington National Opera, gave high honors to a new CD recording by Charles Mackerras, and reviewed two new DVDs of the opera.

When I read about the European release of the new René Jacobs recording of Clemenza with the Freiburger Barockorchester, it seemed ready-made to my liking. Jacobs used the full, restored scholarly edition of the opera, including the recitatives as found in the Mozart autograph parts prepared for the singers at the premiere, uncovered in Prague's Lobkowitz Archives. In the extensive booklet of this set, Jacobs contributed an essay on seven crucial misconceptions about Clemenza, with the fourth being these recitatives. Yes, the simple recitatives are the work of another composer and do not appear in Mozart's autograph score. However, the Prague parts were corrected in Mozart's own hand. There is no reason not to record them in their entirety (although in a live performance, dramatic line could easily trump historical accuracy).

In another superb essay, Florence Badol-Bertrand questions the critical reception of Clemenza, beginning with the famous comment attributed to Empress Maria Luisa, dismissing the opera as "una porcheria tedesca" (German pig crap). Those words can only be traced back as far as a quotation in an 1871 book, although the letter the Empress wrote to her daughter-in-law about Clemenza is negative (just not that evocative). Even so, Badol-Bertrand asks the crucial question: "how could the notion of failure be maintained in the face of the exceptional beauty of this music?" The essay also calls into question several of the myths associated with Clemenza and with Mozart's life, as well as providing a compact analysis of some of the score's more remarkable qualities.

For all of its musicological truths, however, a recording must satisfy by the quality of the performance. The Jacobs Clemenza is a beautiful recording, but probably not the most beautiful one. The Sesto on this recording, the richly voiced Bernarda Fink, is more to my taste in this role than Magdalena Kožená, whose tone is lighter. In a related way, Mark Padmore's voice, although lovely, is perhaps too lyrical for Tito, where a stronger voice like Michael Schade would be more in character.

As Vitellia, Alexandrina Pendatchanska's voice is geared toward those striking low passages in the score, while her upper range is darkly colored with vibrato (I would prefer the reverse, a higher soprano capable of sounding those lower notes). It is odd to be able to choose among so many good recordings of Clemenza now, which is the only reason these fine points are even necessary. The strength of this version lies in the conducting choices of Jacobs, here away from his normal ensemble. I agree with Jens that one's choice of this over the new Mackerras recording will depend on your proclivities as far as historically informed performance practice. As I am generally pro-HIP, this recording is a lovely thing, but still not the ideal.

Harmonia Mundi 901923.24

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