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Opera on DVD: La Clemenza di Tito

Other Reviews:

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

Charles T. Downey, DCist Goes to the Opera (DCist, 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)

Jens F. Laurson, La Clemenza di Tito: Your Charitable Mood Is Welcome (Ionarts, May 9)
As all Ionarts readers are not only aware but surely tired of, 2006 is a Mozart year, the 250th anniversary of the composer's birth. The celebrations were at their peak in January and February (Mozart was born on January 27), but we are still hearing a lot of Mozart. Not to be left out, Washington National Opera is currently mounting a production of Mozart's final opera, the somewhat stiff opera seria La Clemenza di Tito. The WNO production combines sets clearly based on imperial Rome, where the libretto is situated, with 18th-century costumes (see reviews at right). This 1980 film version, re-released on DVD last month by Deutsche Grammophon, may have been one of the inspirations behind Michael Hampe's staging, which makes a similar juxtaposition of time periods. It is one step stranger here, because the costumes (designed by Pet Halmen) are exaggerated examples of 18th-century Viennese dress, complete with outrageous wigs, lost in the ruins of Rome. Although the filming was done in May and June, it was mostly done at night in the outdoor ruins, and you can often see the singers' breath in the cold.

Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's film is one of those "on location" opera films, an attempt to set operas in the actual places where the story is set. This was a trend, beginning with the famous Rome Tosca, actually shot in the three locations of the opera's three acts. The same directing team tried it again with the Paris La Traviata, made for television in 2000 and not yet released on DVD. The idea was absolutely inspired for the Rome Tosca and a semi-failure in the Paris Traviata (mostly on non-musical grounds). One wonders about the decision to attempt such a thing with Clemenza, since the Roman sites in the opera are now all in ruins. Ponnelle shot scenes at the Villa Adriana in Tivoli (built a half-century after Titus was dead), the Arch of Titus (at least appropriate, although it, too, was not built until after Titus's death), and the Baths of Caracalla.

The Roman locations do not really help place the action: the fire takes place at the Arch of Titus, in the forum with the Basilica of Constantine and Maxentius and the Colosseum in the background, although it is supposed to be occurring far away, on the Capitoline Hill. In the Act I finale, we have only the solo singers on the screen, although the chorus can be heard crying out "Tradimento!" in the music. The soundtrack was recorded in Vienna, and he then directed the singers in the film part, with results that are mostly ludicrous because of the pathetic lip-synching. By contrast, Czech director Petr Weigl chose to use actors -- not the singers -- in his opera films, which at least trades the problem of lip-synching for advantages in casting.

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W. A. Mozart, La Clemenza di Tito, Tatiana Troyanos, Eric Tappy, Carol Neblett, Catherine Malfitano, Kurt Rydl, directed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, conducted by James Levine (made in 1980, re-released on DVD on April 11, 2006)
The cast is quite good, vocally speaking, beginning with the extraordinary Tatiana Troyanos as a very psychologically fragile Sesto. (The role is an attractive one for mezzo-sopranos, and it has had the best singers in recent years, including Susan Graham and most recently Joyce DiDonato at the Grand Théâtre de Genève.) Troyanos is matched in power by the statuesque, crazy-eyed, shark-mouthed Carol Neblett, who literally has a Queen of the Night moment when Vitellia offers Sesto a dagger for Tito's murder. Neblett's voice is sometimes over the top, but it goes with the psychotic portrayal of Vitellia as the bloodthirsty wronged woman with bright orange hair.

Swiss tenor Eric Tappy is a mixed bag, with mediocre Italian pronunciation, full but not always beautiful tone, and campy overacting. When the film was made, he was in the twilight of his career (he retired from singing two years later). The runs and high singing in "Se all'impero, amici Dei" are definitely a little frayed around the edges. Anne Howells does well as Annio (the little Act II aria "Torna di Tito a lato" is one of the gems in this opera), and who could ask for a better Servilia than a young Catherine Malfitano? Bass-baritone Kurt Rydl, also near the beginning of his career in 1980, was an imposing Publio, in spite of having to wear the most outrageous wigs of the whole cast.

James Levine leads the bodiless Vienna Philharmonic in a meritorious, but poorly presented sound. In particular, I don't know where they got the harpsichord or how they recorded, but it sounds terrible. In general, the sound quality is not all it should be. Perhaps in an attempt to compensate for the lack of verisimilitude, the soundtrack has been clumsily altered at places, to make it sound more distant (as at the end of the opening duet between Sesto and Annio, as the camera draws back from the action over the pool at the Villa Adriana). Mozart created excellent parts for the master clarinettist Anton Stadler in this opera, beginning with the clarinet obbligato in Sesto's Act I aria "Parto, ma tu ben mio." The combination of Troyanos and a fine clarinet soloist is felicitous, up to and including the brilliant triplet fioriture in both parts at the end. Mozart reportedly loved the sound of Stadler's playing, composing some of his greatest pieces of chamber music for him to play.

Mozart's favor helped put the instrument on the musical map, and not only the clarinet. He also wrote some parts for Stadler's basset horn, the best of which is an obbligato in Vitellia's aria "Non più di fiori." Neblett is a little light on the very lowest notes in that aria (they are at the bottom of my range, and I sing in the tenor section), and the bass clarinet sounds a little canned. I don't know what to make of the chorus of statues in the final scene, although I think I know where the bizarre eagle hanging in the middle of the final set in the WNO production: at the final chords of the film, the camera zooms in on precisely the same eagle, suspended on a necklace over the chest of Tito.

Mozart, who seemed most in his element in the world of comic opera, accepted the commission to write an opera seria in the last year of his short life, for the coronation of Leopold II as King of Bohemia in Prague. Although some accounts relate that Mozart composed the opera in about three weeks, not actually finishing it until opening night, other research indicates that he may already have composed much of the music a couple years earlier, when a plan to create an opera on this libretto fell through. Mozart's student, Franz Xaver Süssmayr (who completed Mozart's Requiem Mass according to his teacher's sketches), did apparently compose the simple recitatives, but this practice was not uncommon. The libretto by Pietro Metastasio had been around for half a century, already set many times by other composers, before Mozart took it up. After another poet, Caterino Mazzolà, had revised the text, the story is a bit of a jumble. The setting is Rome in the first century, during the first year of the short reign of the emperor Titus, although the story is related to history only marginally.

In a sense, La Clemenza di Tito is political fantasy, creators living in an autocracy dreaming about an absurdly benevolent dictator. Although Mozart's Tito forgives all of his enemies, even the betrayal of his closest friend, the historical Titus is most remembered for the military exploits celebrated on the Arch of Titus, the brutal destruction and pillaging of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. Yes, one could be seduced by this fictitious emperor, who insists that the money raised for a temple in his name be used instead to help the victims of the Vesuvius eruption, although the actual Titus spent lots of state money on lavish entertainments in the Colosseum and, of course, his triumphal arch. This is the 18th-century operatic equivalent of President Bartlet on The West Wing: real presidents are just not like that.

As interesting as I find this production, for its flaws I think it is one not to buy, except for completists. If you want to spend money on a new version of La Clemenza di Tito, wait for the new DVD of Salzburg Opera's production, conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, with Dorothea Roschmann, Michael Schade, Barbara Bonney (to be released on May 16). Even better, the new René Jacobs recording of Clemenza with the Freiburger Barockorchester, already released in Europe, will be arriving soon. 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). With Bernarda Fink as Sesto and European critics already falling over themselves to praise it, this recording is much anticipated.

You can hear the Washington National Opera La Clemenza di Tito again on May 11, 14 (the only matinee performance at 2 p.m.), 17, 19, 22, and 27. Students and young professionals, ages 18 to 35, should sign up with WNO's Generation O program, which is offering a limited number of $35 and $25 tickets to its members for the May 11, May 17, and May 19 performances.

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