"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
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
"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
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.