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La Clemenza di Tito: Your Charitable Mood Is Welcome

available at Amazon
W.A.Mozart, La Clemenza di Tito,
R.Jacobs / Freiburg BO
Padmore, Fink, Pendatchanska
Harmonia Mundi

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W.A.Mozart, La Clemenza di Tito,
Böhm / Stakap.Dresden
Schreier, Varady, Berganza

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W.A.Mozart, La Clemenza di Tito,
Mackerras / Scottish ChO
Trost, Martinpelto, Kožená

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W.A.Mozart, La Clemenza di Tito,
C.Hogwood / AcAM
Heilmann, Jones, Bartoli

La Clemenza di Tito. The opera the casual Mozart lover may not have heard about. Scarcely better known than Mitridate, re di Ponto, Lo sposo deluso, L'oca del Cairo, Zaide, Lucio Silla, La finta giardiniera, or as it turns out, most of the 20 operas Mozart composed. An opera about which opinions have, over time – but also among contemporaries – wildly differed. Very educated ears, undeterred, declared after Saturday’s performance at the Washington National Opera that everything in and about this opera was “great!” Attempts to mediate such exuberance by proposing that surely it was an opera that “included great music” were shot down with disdain. Others, yet, expressed surprise at how boring Mozart could be. Little difference at its premiere on September 6, 1791. The wife of Emperor Leopold II, for whose coronation this rush job was stitched together (to a libretto that every second-, third-, and fourth-rate composer had already gone through), allegedly fell asleep and called it a “porcheria tedesca.” But once the show opened to the paying public, it was a smash hit. Indeed, for a (admittedly very short) time, La Clemenza di Tito was considered Mozart’s finest work. Then, as if to make up for such rash misjudgment, it was promptly neglected, then forgotten for about 150 years. I know opera singers who lightheartedly belittle it as boring junk; it has fervent champions in musicians like René Jacobs and Charles Mackerras.

Why such extremes? The Washington National Opera’s production tells us why, by example. It is a great opera because it contains some sublime music; among the finest that late Mozart penned. Why a forgettable work of little importance and little (or dubious) entertainment value? Try the ridiculous and hackneyed plot or the – already at the time – old-fashioned style, relying much on boring secco recitatives. (Those, admittedly, should not be blamed on Mozart; they were more than likely written by his student Süssmayr, the one of Requiem-finishing fame.) The experience of watching La Clemenza on stage then is not unlike the sensation of dipping one finger in extremely hot, the other in very cold water.

The music Mozart composed for this work may be original, but the ideas in this quickly written opera appear elsewhere as well. For his friend, the basset-horn and clarinet player Anton Stadler he wrote some of the juiciest instrumental parts; among the best elements of the opera (Sesto’s “Parto, ma tu, ben mio,” for example). No wonder one hears similar sounds in the clarinet concerto written for the same recipient. In choruses and a duetto here or there the Zauberflöte (the composition of which was interrupted for La Clemenza) calls itself to memory with some vigor.

Having only rolled my eyes in boredom at the mention of this opera when all I knew of it was the Hogwood recording (with a radiant Cecilia Bartoli) and the concert performance of the NSO a few years back, I was pleasantly surprised by my taking to the 1979 recording of Karl Böhm’s with Peter Schreier (what a voice! who cares if his Italian is a pig’s), Julia Varady, and Teresa Berganza. I liked it so much, I thought it had been cut. (It had not.) Now there is a flood of “Clemenzas” on the market: Mozartean Charles Mackerras added his (Trost, Martinpelto, Kožená), René Jacobs’ original instrument recording is out in Europe and will be in the U.S. later this year. Then there are at least three versions on DVD that made it unto the market over the last year. (Charles reviewed one of them, earlier today.)

The story? Compulsively benign Roman Emperor Tito is to marry. The wrong woman, thinks Vitellia, namely: not her. Naturally a girl can't take that lying down - so she has her lover, Sesto, murder him. Last minute Tito announces that he is not going to marry the foreign queen. Vitellia is relieved and recalls Sesto. Sesto is relieved, because he is a friend of Tito's and admires Tito very much. But now Tito wishes to marry Servilia, sister of Sesto and girlfriend of Sesto's friend Annio. Although meant to be in part a gesture of friendship to Sesto, this spells out problems. Vitellia feels rejected again and reverts course once more, convincing Sesto to murder Tito. But Servilia tells Tito that she can't marry the emperor when she loves Annio, Sesto's friend. Tito is much moved by such honesty and - all in the same day - now sets his eyes on Vitellia. Flattered, she tries to recall Sesto once more, but this time it is too late. The Capitol goes up in flames and Tito is murdered. Act 2: Tito, who would have thought, escaped unharmed - Sesto stabbed another man (and even that guy survives). Sesto confesses his treachery and is condemned to death. Tito is torn but ready to pull through with the execution since Sesto refuses to tell what made him do the dastardly deed (in order to protect the future Empress, Vitellia). But Vitellia, too, confesses (thinking Sesto croaked). Tito, much moved by all that confessing, forgives everyone. Curtain.

If this review has yet to mention anything specifically about the production of the WNO, it is because anyone attending a production of La Clemenza that is anywhere from ‘adequate’ to ‘perfect’ will have to first consider the work and its inherent (as I see it) weaknesses; then look at what is on offer specifically. That, as it were, is a very good, very solid cast with Michael Schade (Tito), Tatiana Pavlovskaya (Vitellia), Marina Domashenko (Sesto) in the first tier and, hardly of lesser quality, Jossie Perez as Annio, Nikolai Didenko as Publio, Hoo-Ryoung Hwang as Servilia.

Tatiana Pavlovskaya, a soprano who did everything (right) a soprano had to do (right) at the Mariinsky Opera to make a career, is a lithe, attractive dream of a soprano. Here part Cruella DeVille, part Salome in character, her earthy voice was surprisingly big; a woman bent on revenge and letting every last one in the house know about it. Italian pronunciation and nuance were not primary concern, especially not in the first act. Her great low notes could have made a mezzo jealous. Not to be outdone, mezzo Marina Domashenko’s as Vitellia’s lover and tool, Sesto (looking like a storm-tousled Hänsel), showcased a similarly big, slightly clearer voice in this trouser-role. She was in some ways the most pleasing singer of the production, with great strength in melodious material that did not go too high up. Lack of agility, however, made her recits a comparatively sordid affair.

Michael Schade, a veteran Mozart tenor, his Italian slightly better than Peter Schreier’s, sang more than ably – although his Tito seemed a bit clumsy and awkward. Perhaps discomfort or characterization, it added slightly to the cartoonish flavor that the Pietro Metastasio-concocted, Caterino Mazzolà-edited libretto causes in our day and age. He certainly got into his role with time: foot stomping and emotional outbursts livened his recitativos up considerably. The audience and singers did the only thing that we can, nowadays, do with that material: be amused by it. Laughter and giggles rippled through the audience at every new, incredulous turn of plot and fate. Hoo-Ryoung Hwang twittered away in her typical canary style, a perennial Adele à la Erika Köth. Jossie Perez was pleasant, stable and easily a match for her Russian colleagues.

Other Reviews:

Tim Page, Mozart 1, Drama 0 (Washington Post, May 8)

Tim Smith, A shining production of Mozart's 'Tito' (Baltimore Sun, May 8)

T. L. Ponick, 'Tito' rules this house (Washington Times, May 8)

Charles T. Downey, DCist Goes to the Opera (DCist, May 8)
The set – director Michael Hampe and Germán Droghetti are responsible – is expectedly (overly) conservative and as stiff as the plot and barely changes, not even for moments in Vitellia’s love-lair (set in lush red and well lit by Joan Sullivan-Genthe). When the Roman capitol is ablaze, the built model in the back looks like it emits steam while having a heat-lamp above it. Costumes (Germán Droghetti again) are from the “one-historic-period-fits-all” department of advanced money saving; Napoleonic hats, powdered wigs, and uniforms looked fairly out of place; silken knee-socks and a toga were Tito’s odd get-up. The Praetorian Guard became a sort of Prussian gladiator gone Waffen SS, directly out of a wet dream of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s in their double-breasted black frocks, tights, boots, and little leather helmets. Vitellia’s blood-red dress, supplemented by staff (but no tail or sulphurous trail, to my surprise) was hilariously, presumably purposely, over the top.

The orchestra under Heinz Fricke played very well – with a few more slips in the second act, a crack in the trumpets here, a dragging flute there. The clarinetist played his or her solos most exquisitely. The choir, too, pleased – except for one very short off-stage moment where the amplified voices sounded most displeasing. Getting into details, however, does this opera little justice. Think more of sublime musical moments (pick the chorus “Ah, grazie si rendano,” for example), try not to be put off by the opera’s subjective length. If in the third-to-last scene Vitellia’s rondo (“Non più di fiori…”) does not seem to want to end, remember the pleasures of Sesto’s (nearly as long) “Deh, per questo istante solo.” If you wish to try to see how La Clemenza suits you, you can try on May 11, 14 (matinee), 17, 19, 22, and 27.