24 Feb 2012
La clemenza di Tito — Barbican
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The last opera seria — Mozart’s late, austere masterpiece, and vividly brought it to life.
After writing three great Italian operas which advanced the genre immensely, Mozart turned his attention elsewhere. In his final year he wrote two last operas, which not only contrast with each other but with the three Da Ponte operas which precede them. His singspiel Die Zauberflöte has long been accepted on operatic stages, but La clemenza di Tito has only relatively recently come to acceptance as being stage-worthy.
Somehow, Mozart’s reverting to an opera seria libretto based on Metastasio seemed a step backwards; compared to the three Da Ponte operas, La clemenza di Tito can seem static and actionless. It is in fact an opera which requires the right performers, and at the Barbican on Wednesday 22nd February, the Deutscher Kammerphiharmonie Bremen, under conductor Louis Langrée presented the opera in concert, with a cast who seemed to understand Mozart’s late, austere masterpiece, and vividly brought it to life.
Of course, the piece isn’t strictly an opera seria; the libretto was re-written for Mozart by Caterino Mazzola the Dresden court librettist. Mazzola reduced the number of acts to two and introduced trios, duets and ensembles, giving a greater role to the chorus and creating the Act 1 choral finale. (In fact there is a Gluck setting of the original libretto and I have long thought that it would be illuminating to hear the two side by side in concert.) But Mozart kept a number of opera seria elements in his setting, notably the use of long, highly serious arias; this of course was helped by the fact that one of the arias was a pre-existing concert aria which Mozart included, thus facilitating the speeding writing of the piece. He also relished the way the drama turns slowly, that we get to examine the major characters in detail, emotion by emotion, Affekt by Affekt.
The subtlety which Mozart and Mazzola brought to the piece is demonstrated by their Act 1 trio for Vitellia, Publio and Annio, inserted at the point where Tito has decided to make Vitellia his bride. This could easily have been an aria for Vitellia as she agonises over the fact that it is too late to call back Sesto from his plot; instead Mozart and Mazzola counterpoint this with Publio and Annio’s reactions, naturally they assume that Vitellia is imply overcome by the enormity of the honour of being made Caesar’s wife.
The concert performance at the Barbican was the third stop in a four city tour (Dortmund, Bremen, London, Paris) so that the performance was well bedded in. Though scores were used by the singers, some seemed to ignore them entirely and others were hardly bound to them. In fact this was a highly dramatic presentation. Chief amongst this was the Tito of Michael Schade. Schade used the recitatives in a vivid way, sometimes distorting the line for emphasis. His Tito was no compliant dummy, but a highly emotional and at times over-wrought man; in fact Schade was one of the most extrovert Tito’s I have ever seen, a highly involved and strongly projected performance. This was combined with some very fine Mozart singing, with a clear sense of line combined with dramatic thrust. This made Tito much more of a major player in the drama, rather than a passive ruler to whom things happened as has often been the case with other tenors in this role. Though I have to say that sometimes I thought that Schade went it little too far, with over emphatic dramatics which a good director would surely have taken in hand (there was no director credited in the programme).
Alice Coote’s Sesto was no less dramatic, but all the more compelling for being a far less histrionic performance. Coote’s Sesto was firmly rooted in the music, in the long statuesque arias which Mozart wrote for the character. The great showpiece “Parto, parto” was superbly done, finely accompanied by the solo bassett clarinet from the orchestra. But Sesto’s big accompagnato at the opening of Act 2 also showed a great artist at work, combining musical values with profound drama. Coote is highly experienced in baroque opera seria and so you felt that her performance in this, the last opera seria, was inflected by Mozart’s reflection of the past. Coote’s Sesto reflected both Mozart’s other writing for mezzo-soprano, but also earlier Handelian roles.
She was ably partnered by the Vitellia of Malin Hartelius. Vitellia is a curious role; written for a soprano, it includes the aria, “Non piu di fiori”, which may originally have been concert aria for a distinctly lower voice. This gives the part quite a wide range and its tessitura is such that mezzo-sopranos such as Janet Baker and Della Jones have played with role and on stage it can often be performed by a dramatic soprano (Julia Varady has recorded the role). Malin Hartelius has a rather lighter voice than these; her CV includes recent highlights such as Fiordiligi, Leila (Le Pecheurs de Perles) and her first Marschallin. She played Vitellia as more overtly sexy and rather less the scheming bitch; Hartelius brought a sexual charge to a lot of Vitellia’s music, here was a woman who lived in a man’s world by trading on her female wiles and charms. The relative lightness of Hartelius’s voice meant that we got a nice flexibility in the vocal line, which was a great treat. (Here was a Vitellia more closely related to Fiordiligi than is sometimes the case). She approached the top of her voice with caution, but nothing was announced regarding indisposition. In “Non piu di fiori” she approached the low notes bravely, making the effort seem part and parcel of a fine performance; again the obliggato was played finely by the orchestra’s clarinettist, this time on a bassett horn, thus giving the aria its distinctive tint.
Coote and Hartelius developed a strongly co-dependent relationship which was all too believable and became the strong engine of the drama around which the other roles circulated. Luckily the cast formed a strong ensemble, so that Coote and Hartelius did not overbalance the drama.
Christina Daletska displayed a lighter, brighter voice than Coote, so that her Annio was clearly related to Cherubino, though a Cherubino now grown up and willing to challenge authority. Daletska gave a seriously fine account of Annio’s aria “Tu fosti tradito” when he stands up to Tito after the discovery of Sesto’s involvement in the plot against Tito.
Rosa Feola was an entirely admirable Servilia, giving a performance that combined charm with a certain interesting dramatic edge. She left you wishing that Mozart had written more for this character.
Brindley Sherratt was Publio, the commander of the Praetorian Guards; a role entirely without aria, but one which has an important part to play in the drama and in the ensembles. Sherratt discharged his duty entirely admirably and convincingly, bringing a nicely dramatic firmness of line to the role.
Of course, one major aspect of any performance ofLa clemenza di Tito is the recitative. There’s a lot of it and it’s not all by Mozart; one of his pupils wrote it under his supervision. The cast gave us quite a full version, accompanied by Raphael Alpermann’s lively fortepiano. The result was fleet and dramatic, keeping the action moving and making us aware that it really was drama.
The Deutscher Kammerchor provided the choral moments with nicely turned phrases. They were not on stage all the time, so their entrances and exits were a little distracting, but once present their singing was of a high order.
Conductor Louis Langrée drew a fluent and at times speedy account of the music from the Deustche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen. But Langrée’s concern for lively expressiveness seemed at times to be at the expense of cohesiveness of ensemble. Still, he got a vivid and involving performance from everyone and above all made us believe in La clemenza di Tito as drama, rather than a museum curiosity.