10 Dec 2012
The Met’s La Clemenza di Tito blends inspired singing with dazzling wind obbligatos
The live HD simulcast of Mozart’s final operatic effort, set in ancient Rome, reached friends, Romans and countrymen the world over
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.
As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra from the depths of her soul.
Heading to N.Y.C and D.C. for its annual performances, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra invited Semyon Bychkov to return for his Mahler debut with the Fifth Symphony. Having recently returned from Vienna with praise for their rendition, the orchestra now presented it at their homebase.
The live HD simulcast of Mozart’s final operatic effort, set in ancient Rome, reached friends, Romans and countrymen the world over
The Roman Emperor Titus was by all accounts a forgiving man. At least when compared to the likes of Caligula, Nero and Commodus. But even Titus (or Tito, as he’s known in this opera) would have been hard-pressed to find anything in need of a pardon at the Met’s handsomely sung and visually appealing production of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito.
A splendid cast of singers, led by the brilliant Latvian mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanĉa, included strong supporting efforts by Kate Lindsey and Lucy Crowe — as well as some outstanding efforts from the orchestra pit. Put it all together, and the Met’s revival of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s 1984 production, set in ancient Rome, is worthy of, well, lending an ear.
Mozart began working on his final opera soon after beginning Die Zauberflöte, and completed it in 18 days — an astounding feat, even making all allowances for his subcontracting out of the continuo-accompanied recitatives.
La Clemenza di Tito was commissioned in 1791 to commemorate the coronation of Austrian Emperor Leopold II as King of Bavaria. Mozart obliged by reaching back in time to the crusty old Italian opera seria style championed by Pietro Metastasio — the early 18th century librettist whose plots extolled the magnanimity of enlightened kings and emperors.
Mozart settled on a revision of the Metastasio’s libretto by Venetian poet Caterino Mazzola that afforded him greater flexibility in structuring the arias.
The plot focuses principally on first-century Roman Emperor Titus (Giuseppe Filianoti) and Vitellia (Barbara Frittoli), the self-centered and manipulative daughter of the former emperor usurped by Titus. Jealous of the emperor’s affections toward other women, Vitellia convinces her love-struck suitor Sesto (Elīna Garanĉa) to assassinate him, and Sesto obliges by settings the royal palace on fire in an unsuccessful attempt on the emperor’s life. Unaware of the conspiracy, Titus agrees to marry Vitellia — who realizes her good fortune will come at the expense of Sesto, now imprisoned for treason and prepared to face execution rather than implicate her. In the magnificent aria “Non più di fiori,” Vitellia wrestles with her conscience and ultimately admits complicity in the plot, hoping to save Sesto. Titus, displaying royal compassion endemic to all Metastasio protagonists, decides to forgive all. Long live the emperor. Long live Leopold II. (Applause.)
Elīna Garanča as Sesto and Barbara Frittoli as Vitellia
Garanĉa, whom Met audiences no doubt remember as the title character in both Carmen and La Cenerentola, was in outstanding form in the “trousers role” of Emperor Titus’s confidante (and would-be assassin), Sesto. Here, she crafted a dramatically three-dimensional character torn between his genuine friendship for the emperor and his dysfunctional infatuation with the vengeful Vitellia.
Her signature aria “Parto, parto” revealed an agile vocal quality sufficiently nimble to weave up and down the scale in rapid triplets figures that were handsomely in-sync with the accomplished clarinet obbligato provided by Anthony McGill.
It was nevertheless Garanĉa’s lengthy second-act aria, “Deh per questo istante,” which proved the showstopper. This emotionally charged aria ranks among Mozart’s very best, and its relaxed and leisurely tempo left ample room for Garanĉa to lay bare her character’s soul, which she did to powerful effect.
When I last saw Barbara Frittoli as Micaëla in the Met’s 2010-2011 season production of Carmen I praised the Italian soprano’s formidable vocal skills, but added that her acting abilities left much to be desired. Judging from Saturday’s performance, little has changed. Void of any appreciable degree of meaningful facial expressions (and one cannot hide from the close-up camera work), Frittoli remained emotionally aloof from the complex character she portrayed.
Vitellia must undergo a complete about-face in this story — from a raging femme fatale to a contrite, conscious-stricken human being prepared to sacrifice everything in order to spare the love-struck but well-intentioned sucker she had duped into murder. It didn’t happen. Frittoli’s “Non più di fiori,” the lengthy aria where this transformation must take place, was well sung but dramatically and emotionally vacuous.
In the pants role of the young patrician, Annio, mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey sang beautifully and her acting throughout the production was beyond reproach. The lustrous quality of Lindsey’s voice was evident in her every solo and ensemble number, but it was the degree of expression and nuance that left an indelible mark on the listener’s psyche. I especially enjoyed the profound intensity of Lindsey’s second act aria “Tu fosti tradito,” sung as her character mounts a stirring appeal to the emperor for mercy.
Lucy Crowe as Servilia and Giuseppe Filianoti as Tito
It appears that Lindsey has carved a niche in “trouser roles” at the Met. In addition to Annio she has played Nicklausse (Les Contes d’Hoffmann) and Cherubino (Le Nozze di Figaro). But with or without pants, it’s clear that Lindsey is a first-rate singer-actress, with an ability to climb into any costume and fill every limb with body and substance.
In her Met production debut as Sesto’s sister, Servilia, English lyric soprano Lucy Crowe delivered “S’altro che lagrime” with such warmth and purity of tone I felt cheated that Mozart only allowed her character this single aria. The delicate quality to Crowe’s voice seems especially well suited to lieder, although it was clear from her delivery that she is capable of packing considerable power when needed. I eagerly await Crowe’s next role at the Met.
As the benevolent Emperor Tito, an impeccably attired Giuseppe Filianoti looked and acted well enough to qualify as the noblest Roman of them all. His pleasant sounding voice nevertheless appeared weak and shaky throughout much of the first act, beginning with the aria “Del più sublime soglio” — where the Italian lyric tenor’s middle register sounded raspy and his legato uneven.
Filianoti, who has battled the effects of a paralyzed vocal cord following the removal in 2007 of a cancerous thyroid gland, came alive in Act 2 with a much sturdier voice. He finished strongly in the second act “Se all’impero,” in spite of some difficulty keeping up with the orchestra during the 16th-note coloratura runs.
Ponnelle’s spacious period set, revealing a partially decaying interior of a huge palace in ancient Rome adorned with an array of imposing Corinthian columns, looked handsome from most every angle of Barbara Willis Sweete’s kaleidoscopic camerawork. Curiously, Ponnelle’s costumes appeared rooted in the 18th century — an anachronism suggesting perhaps that the director was trying to forge an artistic connection between “classical architecture” and “musical classicism.” Either that, or the Met costume department was running low on togas.
Kate Lindsey as Annino
English conductor and early music specialist Harry Bicket directed an alert Met Opera Orchestra that played with alacrity, even during the routine recitativo accompagnato sections. In addition to Anthony McGill’s flashy clarinet obbligato accompaniment in “Parto, parto,” James Ognibene deserves kudos for his dazzling basset horn obbligato in “Non più di fiori.” Ognibene’s liquid tone throughout the range of this tenor clarinet sounded as warm and focused as that of an A or B-flat soprano clarinet. (Both obbligato parts were tailored for Mozart’s close friend and fellow Freemason, Anton Stadler.)
It’s understandable why Clemenza fails to muster the universal level of interest enjoyed by the composer’s more popular Italian operas Le Nozze di Figaro, Cosi fan tutte and Don Giovanni: It simply is not as good. On the other hand, there’s much to love and admire about Mozart’s final opera, including signature arias such as “Deh per questo istante.” Perhaps the current Ponnelle production will reignite listener passion for this deserving work.
If not, we may be needing yet another pardon from Titus.
By David Abrams