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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
La clemenza di Tito (1791)
Werner Hollweg (tenor) – Tito
Carol Nesbitt (soprano) - Vitellia
Catherine Malfitano (soprano) – Servilia
Kate Lindsey (mezzo-soprano) – Sesto
Anne Howells (mezzo-soprano) – Annio
Kurt Rydel (bass-baritone) – Publio
Chor der Wiener Staatsoper; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/James Levine
rec. live 3 August 1977, Felsenreitschule, Salzburg
No libretto; synopsis and notes. ADD
ORFEO C938172I [63:09 + 71:13]

I am increasingly convinced that fifty years on from its revival, the once despised "Clemenza" deserves its rehabilitation amongst the finest of Mozart's works alongside "Idomeneo". The supposed tedium of the recitatives is much exaggerated, especially as well delivered as they are here, and they are essential to moving the taut plot along.

This live recording from the Salzburg Festival comes from what must now be regarded almost as a Golden Age of recordings of this previously neglected opera; there are several excellent live recordings from the mid-70s, several of which star Janet Baker in her prime and of course Colin Davis’ studio recording for Philips, which has remained my preferred to account to this day.

There are, additionally, good studio recordings from Kertesz and Böhm, but despite their merits neither fields a team of soloists to rival those here or in the recordings with Janet Baker as Vitellia. The recitativo in Kertesz’s recording is heavily cut but still rather dull and heavy-footed. Kertesz's conducting in general is, for a celebrated exponent of Mozart, rather genteel, although the ensembles go with more of a swing. I quite enjoy Maria Casula's slightly matronly Vitellia; she is rich-voiced with a fast vibrato, copes well with the divisions and has a strong lower register but her "Vengo, aspettate" isn't a patch on Baker's, who gives us real highlight in that explosive aria. Werner Krenn’s Tito is rather too much of a milksop but the role is neatly sung. Both Lucia Popp and Brigitte Fassbaender are occasionally in rather tremulous voice but both are lovely of tone; the latter is especially ardent in "Tu fosti tradito". The younger Berganza is velvety but a tad anonymous, and as Sesto has more than anyone to sing in this opera, strong characterisation is important. The playing from the VPO is of course lovely, especially the clarinet solo in "Parto". Tugomir Franc’s Publio is lumpy and potato-mouthed, spoiling the Terzetto.

I have never warmed to Peter Schreier's nasal, constricted tenor, which rules out Böhm's set for me, for all that I really esteem and enjoy Julia Varady's splendidly vocalised Vitellia, Edith Mathis's sweet, bell-voiced Servilia and Teresa Berganza repeating her estimable Sesto. Böhm's conducting is considerably more driven and propulsive than that of Kertesz and even the potentially tedious recitatives have more bounce and life - except in Tito's arias, which are taken at lugubrious speeds. It must also be said that Berganza is not in such fresh voice for Böhm as she was for Kertesz over ten years earlier; the tone is a little worn at times, despite her patrician singing. Add to the mix a dull, plummy Annio with indistinct enunciation and an absurdly wobbly Publio from favourite son of Dresden Theo Adam, and Böhm's recording begins to look less attractive. Even the formidable Varady, for all her prowess in coloratura and venomous lower register, is less visceral than Janet Baker in full cry.

John Pritchard’s live recording from Covent Garden in 1976, however, has a superb cast headed by Baker and the same Tito, Werner Hollweg, as in this recording under review. He is in fine voice, but due either to the sound engineering or to the vagaries of performance, he sounds in better voice in London than in Salzburg, with the incipient beat that sometimes obtrudes in his tenor better tamed and more subdued. He sings his showpiece arias, such as “Se all’impero” with considerable style and authority, but in neither of his recordings is he a match for Stuart Burrows.

Even the best live recordings have some sound problems compared with the studio versions, and this Salzburg recording is no exception: the ambiance here is distant and reverberant, certainly redolent of the opera house but without the detail and immediacy registered by human ears. Hence proceedings sound too remote, compromising dramatic impact. The London live recording is more present, but suffers from distortion at peak volume.

Carol Neblett is impressive as Vitellia without erasing memories of Baker. Hearing her performance here reminds me of the impact she made in her signature role of Minnie in La fanciulla del West at Covent Garden forty years ago around the same time; she is bold, even fearless, and strikes her top B’s in “Vengo, aspettate” with fearsome impact, even if she does not quite achieve Janet Baker’s visceral intensity. Her attempt to flick a top D at the end of that aria was perhaps less advisable.

She is partnered by two fine singers in Tatiana Troyanos – surely one of the most beautiful and talented mezzo-soprano voices ever to have been prematurely taken from us - and Catherine Malfitano; both are superb, even if Troyanos is not necessarily superior to Yvonne Minton or Teresa Berganza, any more than Malfitano is better than Lucia Popp. The young Robert Lloyd’s rich-voiced Publio, however, remains preferable to Kurt Rydl’s nonetheless serviceable bass.

Levine’s conducting is heavier, slower and more emphatic than Davis or Pritchard, whose pace and timings are almost identical and who move the opera on more propulsively. If you want the frisson of a live performance, my recommendation would be for the London recording conducted by Pritchard, but the Colin Davis studio recording remains supreme.

Ralph Moore



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