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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
La Clemenza di Tito - opera in two acts K. 621 (1791)
Tito, Emperor of Rome, Charles Castronovo (ten); Sesto, a Roman patrician, friend of Tito, in love with Vitellia, Vesselina Kasarova (mezzo); Vitellia, daughter of the emperor Vitellius, Véronique Gens (sop); Servillia, sister of Sesto, in love with Annio, Alexia Voulgaridou (sop); Annio, a Roman patrician, friend of Sesto, in love with Servillia, Michelle Breedt (mezzo); Publio, Paolo Battaglia (bass)
Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks
Münchner Rundfunkorkester/Pinchas Steinberg
rec. live 26 February 2006, Philharmonie im Gasteig, Munich. DDD
BMG RCA 82876 83990 2 [53.15 + 60.29]
 


It has been a good year for recordings of La clemenza di Tito with the reappearance of a classic 1960s account and a brand new one in the past few months. With the field of alternative versions gradually massing it is good news if one wants several options to choose from, but not so good for the record company concerned should their new contender not fully make the grade.
 
Before considering this version, perhaps it is as well to be acquainted with the main alternatives:
•  Kertész leading the Vienna State Opera on Decca with Werner Krenn, Berganza, Lucia Popp and Brigitte Fassbaender at mid-price (see review)
•  Böhm on DG with Peter Schreier, Berganza (again) and Julia Varady  
•  Mackerras with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Rainer Trost, Magdalena Kožená, Hillevi Martinpelto, Lisa Milne, Christine Rice and John Relyea (see review)
 
My colleague Göran Forsling - in his review of the Mackerras set - was right to draw attention to versions conducted by Hogwood, Harnoncourt, Gardiner and Colin Davis amongst others, but in each case their sets are flawed by serious cases of mis-casting or less than ideal recorded sound. Were I asked for a recommendation before the appearance of this latest set, I would have suggested Kertész for an old-style, but idiomatic account, and Mackerras the best of the recent bunch. He maintains the use of modern instruments but adds informed awareness of the freshness often found in period instrument performances through brisk tempi, a keen ear for sonority and slight use of vibrato in the playing.
 
The present set comes courtesy of a live Bavarian radio recording, made on 26 February 2006. With no editing to be done one can understand why RCA have entered the Tito fray so soon after the event. The sound itself is fine, with orchestral balance seemingly well handled. The overture displays full string tone with weight to the bass which is nice, the brass and timpani all make themselves heard, as do the winds. But… - oh dear, the ‘buts’ start already - Steinberg’s pacing is a touch prosaic when heard against Mackerras’. The recitatives also can fall into routine just a bit too often for my liking – and on repeat hearings I appreciated the fact that the recitatives are separately tracked from the arias that follow them. But that should not be the case. Mozart’s inventiveness is just as much in the recitatives as in the arias, and the two belong together in the listening experience, not separately. To back up my inventiveness argument I could ask for now finer evidence than Mackerras or Kertész provide and if one wants arias only, one buys a highlights disc in preference to a complete recording.
 
It is clear then that the singing on this set is going to play a crucial role in securing any recommendation.  Bulgarian mezzo Vesselina Kasarova, cast as Sesto, is the soloist this set is built around. Her image adorns the sets cover and none of the other singers get a look in, though they deserve to as there are some reasonable artists among them.
 
At least a decade ago I heard Kasarova in Munich and noted then the vocal freshness and agility that first launched her into an international career. Having heard her last year in London, much of these qualities seemed absent. Voices age and develop with time like no other instrument; some fare well, others less so. Part of the skill in singing, it could be said, is how the artist acknowledges and works with the aging process to produce music that’s still acceptable before the public. Many might be tempted to call the state of her voice as heard on this recording ‘mannered’ (indeed, I have done so myself – see review), but I am having increased reservations about the use of the word in music criticism and what exactly its use is intended to imply. Yes, Kasarova has a voice that projects well and produces adequate tone even if done with a little effort at the extremes of her range. As I commented in that review of that live performance, the chest voice remains in good shape and she can float the voice, though she does so with care. She conveys a sense of drama in her singing and, notwithstanding the factors just mentioned, has a good sense of Mozartian line. Whether that is sufficiently to one’s taste is something that only an individual can judge, though her reading of big moments such a Parto, parto, ma tub en mio are certainly individual. She does command, though with an ever present slight vibrato in the voice. Alright does not impress as readily here as Berganza does, but few singers have made the aria as completely their property as Berganza did. Listen to Kasarova in the recitativo accompagnato that follows soon after, however, and you become aware that in the heat of the moment can cause her to forego vocal security, where a studio recording would maintain it.
 
Véronique Gens’ Vitellia is flexible of voice and clear of tone. She sings naturally and catches a nice medium between control and impetus for real warmth of conviction in her reading. Much of the text though seems skated over in faster passages in her haste to propel notes into the air. Castronovo’s tenor is a substantial instrument, though he employs it with intelligence, scaling down where he can. This is of considerable benefit as recitative passages constitute the bulk of the role.
 
If only the same could be consistently said for Michelle Breedt’s Annio. A firm mezzo, she displays a tendency to make her recitatives into more than they should be. If they are large-scale, what chance is there for arias to make their full impact? Much better by far is Alexia Voulgaridou’s reading of Servilia. Having welcomed her aria recital on Arte Nova (see review) it’s good to hear her in some Mozart. Much sensitivity towards the music is in evidence. Paolo Battaglia makes what he can of the opera’s only bass role and proves imposing in the process.
 
Good though it is in parts, overall this release does not displace either Mackerras or Kertész as my recommendation for a complete recording. Mackerras keeps me constantly surprised with the amount of nuance he finds in the score, and his cast is consistently finer, displaying inventive originality in their singing too. Kertész is his own recommendation and presents no less valid a view of the work. The fact that this RCA set only comes with libretto in PDF format (on CD1) is perhaps a final factor against it – it seems parsimonious at full price to ask the listener to additionally cover the printing cost for some 25 A4 pages when Mackerras’s set comes with full printed libretto and good notes to boot.
 
Evan Dickerson
 

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