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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
La Clemenza di Tito. Opera in two acts K. 621 (1735)
Libretto adapted by Caterino Mazzola from Pietro Metastasio’s original of 1735.
First performed 6 September 1791, National Theatre, Prague, celebrating Coronation of Emperor Leopold II
Tito, Emperor of Rome, Christoph Prégardien (ten); Sesto, a Roman patrician, friend of Tito, in love with Vitellia, Susan Graham (mezzo); Vitellia, daughter of the emperor Vitellius, Catherine Neglestad (sop); Servillia, sister of Sesto, in love with Annio, Ekaterina Siurina (sop); Annio, a Roman patrician, friend of Sesto, in love with Servilia, Hannah Esther Minutillo (mezzo); Publio, Roland Bracht (bass)
Orchestra and Chorus of The Opéra National de Paris/Sylvain Cambreling
Stage Directors, Ursel and Karl-Ernst Herrmann.
Set and costume design by Karl-Ernst Herrmann
TV Director, Thomas Grimm
rec. live, Palais Garnier, Paris, May-June 2005.
Presented in stereo and dts surround sound
Sung in Italian with subtitles in English, German, French Italian and Spanish
OPUS ARTE OA 0942 D [2 DVDs: 68.01 + 79.11]

Mozart was approached by the impresario Guardasoni with the commission to write an opera for Emperor Leopold’s Coronation Day in Prague on 6 September 1791. This must have come as a considerable surprise. He well knew that he was not flavour of the month in the Royal Court, particularly with the Empress. By the time a positive decision had been made to present a newly composed opera as part of the celebrations, and Salieri had refused the commission due to pressure of work, time was very short. Mozart was heavily involved in the composition of Die Zauberflöte.

Much has been written and conjectured about the how Mozart might have composed Tito, including suggestions that he might have done it in his head during the three day coach journey from Vienna to Prague and then wrote it out on his arrival. Research on the paper used in the manuscript score, which fortunately survives, indicates a more complex story. Mozart certainly wrote some numbers from the opera before he had any idea of the commission coming his way. It is suggested that he had been approached by Guardasoni after the success of Don Giovanni in Prague with the proposal for another opera, perhaps even one based on the Tito libretto. These pieces were part of a composition that did not come to fruition at that time. Certainly La clemenza di Tito was chosen for the Coronation Day opera because of the prior availability of Metastasio’s libretto - one that could easily be adapted by Mazzola the Court poet who had replaced Da Ponte. That Tito was in the rather static opera seria form might have disappointed Mozart whose last work in this genre had been Idomeneo in 1781 since when his operas had moved on in style and vitality as well as humour.

Working with Mazzola Mozart was able to breathe some vitality into Metastasio’s original libretto. Despite these efforts circumstances surrounding the Coronation Day lead to the work’s initial failure. However, by the final performance on 30 September, the night of the premiere of Die Zauberflöte in Vienna, it was a resounding success. In the following forty years Tito stood alongside Don Giovanni as Mozart’s most popular stage work until it fell into decline. The recently reissued Decca 1967 recording did much to catalyse renewed interest and several staged productions and audio recordings followed, not least by period instrument bands who managed to breathe vitality into the more turgid parts. One of the best of the staged productions was that by Anthony Besch at Covent Garden in 1974. He and his designer were not frightened of the period Roman setting or costumes. I found the opera most interesting and stimulating in this context. That series of performances was the basis for the later highly regarded Philips recording under Colin Davis. I regret I know of no video recording of that production.

The present production started life in 1982 at Brussels’ Théâtre de la Monnaie during Gérard Mortier’s regime as intendant. When he moved to Salzburg he revived it there. The conductor Riccardo Muti found difficulty with the production and decamped. With Mortier now in charge in Paris it reappears, albeit refurbished. With a shoe box staging Roman allusions are restricted to a throne, a model Roman building being carried around, a distant pillared corridor viewed through an open door at the rear of the shoe box and a crown of laurels for Tito. The costumes are a mish-mash. Publio has a long trailing morning coat whilst at times Tito looks as if he is dressed in a cross between Long Johns, a white boiler suit and pyjamas. The women, those playing women and those in travesti, are dressed as if they have strayed in from a modelling session in a Paris Haute Couture salon. The acting is very stylised with exaggerated facial agonies and wringing hand movements, both in frequent close-up. Yes, there is some focus on aspects of the personal dramas and interactions of the persona of the drama but the overall lack of cohesion and context left this viewer with a sense of frustration. The most profound frustration I felt is that the core role of Sesto is taken by the American high mezzo Susan Graham. Without doubt she is the outstanding interpreter of this role before the public at this time. Her singing is outstanding and her interpretation overcomes the limitations of the direction, stylised acting and costume. Her rendering of Sesto’s Parto, parto is vibrant and expressive and no mere vocal showpiece (D1 Ch. 16). Likewise, Graham’s rendering of the rondo aria Deh per questo istante, as Sesto pleads with Tito to remember their past affection, is a vocal tour de force (D2 Ch. 13); a pity though about the close-ups as she plays with Tito’s laurel crown.

Elsewhere the singing varies between the acceptable and the mediocre. Catherine Neglestad takes the ‘bady’ role of Vitellia, with its range from G below middle C to top G. She hasn’t quite got the lowest notes or the ideal freedom at the top, but she sings with dramatic intention and inflection and a good range of vocal colour in her contrition aria (D2 Chs. 18-19). Neglestad’s applying to her face of what look like war-paint symbols during Sesto’s Parto, parto, and the overflowing of bosom in her wedding dress in the last scene, do nothing for the role’s credibility or the drama of the opera. In the small role of Servillia, Ekaterina Siurina sings pleasantly as does Hannah Esther Minutillo as Annio although the latter’s very feminine features and floor mop hair style do not help in conveying of masculinity. Of the men Roland Bracht as Publio is steadier than as Sarastro on Haitink’s 1981 audio recording of Die Zauberflöte whilst his costume, beard and hairstyle do nothing for his dramatic credibility. In the name part Christoph Prégardien is dry-voiced and tonally ungracious. When I saw the Besch’s Covent Garden production, Stuart Burrows might have looked matronly in his toga but he was sappy of tone and vocally mellifluous, qualities he took into Colin Davis’s recording. Prégardien does not have those vocal skills and with his heavy jowls does not benefit from the frequent close-ups. The direction and costumes make him seem more the vacillating ninny than the noble, compassionate Emperor of the libretto.

Gerard Mortier obviously loves this production and has done everything in his power to present it in this long-lasting form. Personally I much prefer the 1991 Glyndebourne production (Arthaus Music) whose overall standard of singing is also superior. Ponnelle’s film of the opera, conducted by Levine, is also scheduled for release on DG in the spring of 2006. With Tatiana Troyanos as Sesto it will provide further competition. As for this issue, the only justification for adding it to a collection is the outstanding singing of Susan Graham in this performance of Mozart’s penultimate staged work. Die Zauberflöte was premiered on 30 September and ten weeks later the composer was dead. Which of those last two works for the stage, much of which were contemporaneously composed, is the greater work. This point is much more debated now that Tito is more widely available for critical appraisal than it was when Decca issued their ground-breaking Vienna recording forty years ago.

Robert J Farr

 

 



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