After all the initial rubbish before the actual performance
- there must be opera lovers besides myself who would prefer
to go straight to the kernel - we get some beautiful “Salzburg
by Night” sequences and end up in the Felsenreitschule.
There we encounter the eponymous hero, Tito, the Roman
Emperor, making a telephone call! Aha, one of those journeys
in time again! Misgivings arrive and are duly confirmed.
The full stage picture is a kind of doll’s house in three
floors with lots of small “rooms”, visible stairs between
the floors. As the drama unfolds there is a lot of running
up and down these stairs. Most of the action takes place,
however, on a front stage. Tito is dressed, while making
his call, in something remotely resembling a Roman toga,
but when the other characters appear they are in more or
less formal suits and modern dresses. Since most of the
male characters are played by females (Sesto and Annio)
neither of whom looks very masculine, we are in for a somewhat
confusing evening. The director obviously wants to show
that relationships are on the whole sexually motivated
and the actors are encouraged to be very intimate.
I don’t really mind sensuality on stage but I have a
creeping feeling that Martin Kušej is more after sensationalism.
This concept also means that the actors, Dorothea Röschmann
at least, is required to change clothes on stage. It is
a comfort that present day’s opera singers are attractive
to look at, even with a minimum of cover. To mark the topicality
of the production there are even a couple of masked terrorists
who set the imperial palace on fire, splashing petrol all
over the place, resulting in a second act where most of
the characters run about with sooty faces.
Do I seem bantering or negative? To some degree I am,
but I have also tried to understand Kušej’s motives. Suppose
that he wants to tell us that our present society, in spite
of development and culture, is just as crude and primitive
as Roman society, which was also known to be highly developed
and cultural – and crude. When in the second act Sesto
is found guilty of treachery he is to be thrown to the
lions. We still use the expression in a figurative sense
when leaking compromising information to the tabloid press.
Sometimes, however, I wonder if Kušej just wants to show
the improbability of the opera seria concept as
a whole. In several scenes the action seems so over the
top that it can only be meant as parody. The chorus’s first
entry is as a group of - American? - tourists in casual
dress. There are scenes - e.g. between Tito and Servilia
- that verge on slap-stick. Tito himself is portrayed as
neurotic, not to say mad. Michael Schade’s acting is utterly
convincing. I came to think of the mad Danish king Christian
VII, who married Caroline Mathilde, sister of George III
of England, to British music lovers at least known through
Peter Maxwell Davies’ ballet Caroline Mathilde.
My wife left after the first act, but I persevered.
In the end I found the concept partly touching, partly
amusing, and I hope interested readers have got some clue
as to what the performance is like. The greatest problem
is, as so often with stories transported in time, that
the action jars with the music. In this case even more
than usual, since Mozart’s music is anything but amusing
and dramatic. Touching it is, to such a degree that it
could just as well have been an oratorio. In fact large
portions of this score might be sacred. Slow tempos dominate,
and the recitatives - not by Mozart; it is generally believed
to have been written by his pupil Süssmayr, the one who
completed his Requiem - sometimes feel interminable.
Nikolaus Harnoncourt is an experienced Mozartean and he
has always liked to stress the extremes: powerful fortes
and almost inaudible pianissimos. Abetted by the wonderful
Vienna Philharmonic he presents this rich score as lushly
as it is possible to imagine. However in the midst of all
the beauty and all the inwardness there is a lack of momentum.
Going back to the recent Mackerras recording for DG (audio
only - see review), his is a leaner and more sharply etched
sound, but the real culprit in this case is Mozart himself,
wrote some of his most beautiful arias for this opera but
forgot to put life in his characters.
I will not be returning to this production very often
as a visual experience, even though for entertainment I
might pick isolated scenes, but what redeems this performance
is the singing. There isn’t a weak link in the cast, and
all of them are good actors, who, as far as I can tell,
obey the director’s intentions admirably, whether they
like them or not.
Luca Pisaroni is an excellent Publio, lighter of voice
than John Relyea on the Mackerras recording, but also steadier.
As Servilia Barbara Bonney is as fresh voiced as ever and
new superstar Elina Garanča, who recently signed an
exclusive contract with DG, which probably implies that
she is guaranteed a great future, is a perfect Annio, actually
looking quite boyish. As has been pointed out more than
once lately the mezzo-soprano department is exceptionally
well populated at present and Garanča only confirms
this. Vesselina Kasarova has been around for a number of
years and has firmly established herself in the top layer.
As Sesto she challenges all her competitors on competing
versions, even the wonderful Magdalena Kožena on the Mackerras
set. Parto, parto (Disc 1 track 21) has rarely,
if ever, been so marvellously sung. Dorothea Röschmann
sings and acts Vitellia with such intensity that she is
on a par with Mackerras’s Hillevi Martinpelto and her lowest
notes are even firmer. I have already mentioned Michael
Schade’s assumption, visually, and his singing matches
his acting. I admired Rainer Trost on the Mackerras, but
Schade sings just as well and with a lighter voice and
less strain. His florid singing (DVD 2 track 16) is also
I have a second La clemenza di Tito waiting in
the wings – one which will probably be an antidote to this
Salzburg version. With Arnold Östman at the helm, period
instruments and costumes and filmed at the Drottningholm
Court Theatre, contemporaneous with the music, it should
be something special. The present Harnoncourt offering,
in spite of my vacillating, has an integrity of its own
and the singing is absolutely superb.