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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
La Clemenza di Tito (1791)
Opera seria KV 621

Tito Vespasiano - André Post (Tenor)
Vitellia - Claudia Patacca (Soprano)
Servilia - Francine van der Heyden (Soprano)
Sesto -Cécile van de Sant (Soprano)
Annio - Nicola Wemys (Soprano)
Publio - Marc Pantus (Bass Baritone)
Vocale Ensemble Cocu
Musica ad Rhenum/Jed Wentz
Recorded August 2002, Maria Minor Church, Utrecht, The Netherlands
La Finta Giardiniera (1775)
Dramma giocoso in tre atti, KV 196

Il Podestà - Ugo Benelli
Sandrina - Joanna Kozlowska
Belfiore (Il Contino) - Marek Torzewski
Arminda - Malvina Major
Ramiro - Lani Poulson
Serpetta - Elzbieta Szmytka
Nardo - Russel1 Smythe
Orchestra du Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie/Sylvain Cambreling
Recorded live June 1989. Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, Brussels, Belgium
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 99736 [68.17+72.53+67.24+69.59+62.08]

 

"La Clemenza di Tito" was Mozart's last but one opera, written for Prague to celebrate the Coronation of the Emperor. The opera's final performance in Prague coincided with the first performance of "Die Zauberflöte" in Vienna, which just goes to illustrate Mozart's amazing versatility. Pressed for time in Prague, Mozart seems to have delegated the composition of the extensive secco recitatives to someone else, probably his pupil Süssmayr. The libretto is based on an opera seria by Metastasio, famously set by a number of late-baroque composers. Mozart and his adapter, Mazzola, made a good job of creating out of this, a fine libretto suitable for setting by Mozart.

"La Clemenza di Tito" has been lucky on record with fine versions on period instruments and modern ones and a tempting array of fine singers. Nevertheless, it is always pleasing to be able to welcome a new recording. This one, by the Dutch group Musica ad Rhenum directed by Jed Wentz, is part of Brilliant Classics complete Mozart Edition. Musica ad Rhenum have recorded other items for this enterprising series, notably the early opera seria "Ascanio ad Alba".

The casting is slightly unusual in that, according to the booklet, all the upper voices are cast with sopranos. Sesto and Annio are traditionally sung by mezzo-sopranos. Whilst it might be perfectly possible to cast these parts with sopranos it does not really seem desirable. Occasionally the lower register can prove a little testing and more problematically, there is an overall reduction in the contrast between the voices. In fact a little research shows that Cécile van de Sant (Sesto) is generally billed as a mezzo-soprano and clearly sounds as such. Annio is sung by the soprano, Nicola Wemys, who provides some of the most shapely singing on the recording. The part is well within her tessitura, but Annio, Servilia and Vitellia are insufficiently differentiated on the recording.

The role of Vitellia, though, is a special case. Written for a voice with quite a high tessitura, the final aria 'Non piu di fiori' with its obbligato basset horn, has quite a low tessitura. There is some evidence to suggest that it was originally written as a separate concert aria. Nevertheless this leaves conductors with a slight casting problem. Either you cast an adventurous mezzo-soprano who might find the role taxing but will deliver a fine rendition of the final aria, or you cast a soprano who might give a weak performance of the final aria.

Claudia Patacca's Vitellia is surprisingly light voiced. Her command of the fioriture is not always ideal and 'Non piu di fiori' is patently too low for her. No matter what other positive features the performance may have, this simple fact rules out this disc as a primary library choice. She is fine in the remainder of the role, but can sound a little frayed at the top.

André Post sings Tito's arias mellifluously, but he is rather taxed by the fioriture which is a shame as he comes over well in the recitative. Cécile van de Sant makes an attractive Sesto, but her voice can sound a little hard at the upper end. She gives a truly moving account of Sesto's final aria. Francine van der Heyden's Servilia provides some beautifully shaped singing, I could have wished to hear more of her. There is a hint that that part of Annio lies a little too low for Nicola Wemys but she gives a moving account 'Torna di Tito a lato'. She and Francine van der Heyden provide some of the loveliest singing on the record.

The cast dramatise the secco recitative well, especially in Act II, where the drama keeps the listeners attention admirably despite the occasional weakness of Süssmayr's recitatives. It is a shame that they continue to use a harpsichord for continuo rather than the forte-piano which Mozart probably used. As usual, the recitative is cut, only Hogwood performs it complete.

Musica ad Rhenum sounds to be a smallish ensemble and Jed Wentz takes advantage of this. Speeds tend to be on the brisk side, but usually well judged, and the overture is delivered with fine attack.

This is an attractive recording with some fine singing. But unfortunately the singers are up against some strong competition. All the singers here acquit themselves creditably but their performances can be a little too generalised. Up against Julia Varady, Ann Murray, Della Jones, Janet Baker, Barbara Bonney, Diana Montague, Ann Sofie von Otter, Lucia Popp and Cecilia Bartoli, they do not really stand a chance. Just listen to Della Jones (on Hogwood's recording) to hear what a gifted singer can really do if 'Non piu di fiori' lies securely within her range and the soprano Julia Varady, in the same role, demonstrates fine control over the whole range of the role. The beauties of Cecilia Bartoli's shapely Mozartian line add immeasurably to the nobility of her Sesto on Hogwood's recording.

But these are all full price recordings. At super-budget price this opera is very recommendable. So if you are unfamiliar with the opera, or simply want to hear an alternative approach, then consider this recording.

"La Finta Giadiniera" (or 'The Bogus Landgirl' as Cyril Connolly evidently once translated it) is one of Mozart's early operas to have retained a toehold in the repertory. This opera buffa was written for Munich but had little success and would have disappeared totally had an impresario not decided to stage it in German as a singspiel. In this format it proved popular. At some point the manuscript for Act 1 of the Italian opera was lost, so performances of the Italian version were not possible. This manuscript was found in the 1970s in the Czech Republic, so that performances of the Italian opera are once again possible.

The libretto has come in for a great deal of criticism. Billed as an opera buffa, the characters can be divided into buffa and seria and the libretto is designed to wring every last ounce of emotion from the audience, allowing Mozart to employ the techniques of Sturm und Drang. Undoubtedly, if Mozart had written the opera a few years later it would be a greater work. But it is the earliest opera in which we hear Mozart's distinctive mature voice, rather than the voice of the precocious teenager. It was written at about the same time as the violin concertos, when Mozart was 18. And if the characters are still rather stock ones, in the finales we start to hear the voice of the mature Mozart.

The opera has not been lucky on record. It is still worth searching out the old Schmidt-Isserstedt recording. This is a rather old fashioned recording of the German version ('Die Gärtnerin aus Liebe'), but with a luxurious cast including Helen Donath, Gerhard Unger, Werner Hollweg, Jessye Norman, Tatiana Troyanos, Ileana Cotrubas and Herman Prey. The recording was included in the Philips complete Mozart Edition. They also included the Leopold Hager recording of the Italian version. Also worth seeking out is the Harnoncourt recording with his Concentus Musicus Wien. Originally issued on Teldec, this recording seems to be currently deleted, but has a cast that includes Edita Gruberova, Thomas Moser, Monica Bacelli and Dawn Upshaw.

The recording under consideration here comes from as series of live performances in 1989 at the Monnaie in Brussels. It was probably an amusing production to watch and maybe even to listen to once on Belgian Radio. But it is not ideal as a CD. There are too many reminders of the unseen stage business. And without this visual distraction, the singers sometimes seem merely untidy. After all, this might be early Mozart, but that does not mean it is either easy or negligible - quite the contrary, some of the arias are quite taxing. So the singers do not seem to have been helped by the not inconsiderable stage business. There so much stage noise, strange pauses, applause, audience laughter and the like, that at times one is distracted from the music as you keep trying to work out what on earth was happening on stage. Il Contino's first aria comes complete with a false start - after his first 2 notes there is a pause, stage noise, laughter and then the whole aria starts again from the orchestral introduction. Amusing at first but not ideal on repeated listening. Another effect of the live performance is that the singers’ diction suffers.

An advantage of live recording is, of course, the increase in dramatic credibility. The recitative certainly comes over in a dramatic manner, but too often it seems to be being performed in a deliberately comic manner which I find a little off putting. That said, it certainly does fizz along and provides you with a real dramatic experience.

The singers are on the whole pretty acceptable. Marek Torzewski's Il Contino has a pleasantly robust tenor, rather vibrant in the upper register and sometimes lacking in control. I did not feel that he was a natural Mozart singer. Ramiro is a castrato role which is unusual in opera buffa. Lani Poulson's performance suffers from smudged fioriture and a tendency to sound too much like a mature woman and not enough like a masculine hero. As Il Podestà, Ugo Benelli has far too buffo a voice for my taste, he seems to be covering up vocal inadequacies. The trio of women (Joanna Kozlowska - Sandrina, Malvina Major - Arminda and Elzbieta Szmytka - Serpetta) can all be affecting. Elzbieta Szmytka's Act I cavatina is lovely with some delicate string accompaniment. and she copes well with some of the tricky verbal patter that her part calls for. Malvina Major sings stylishly but is apt to be unsteady and untidy. As Nardo, Russell Smythe provides strong support but has something of a beat in his voice.

Joanna Kozlowska and Marek Torzewski are at their best in the remarkable, long duet at the end of Act 3 as Sandrina finally reveals her true identity. The characters’ struggles are reflected in Mozart’s music, one of the most lyrical sections in the whole score and providing a lovely pointer to the Mozart to come. This section and the finales are where the mature Mozart starts to show in the opera and both the singers and the orchestra come into their own in them, giving strong ensemble performances. Under Sylvain Cambreling the Monnaie Orchestra provide some shapely playing though at other times they can be a little untidy. Generally Cambreling’s direction is admirable, and he nicely judges the structure of the multi-sectioned finales.

No libretto is provided, simply a good plot summary along with an aria by aria discussion of the fascinating key relationships which underlay the music.

Neither of these performances is ideal, but each performance has something to recommend it. They are certainly a bargain for anyone wanting to explore unfamiliar Mozartian territory.

Robert Hugill



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