La Clemenza di Tito

YANNICK NÉZET-SÉGUIN, 2017
Marina Rebeka (Vitellia), Regula Mühlemann (Servilia), Joyce DiDonato (Sesto), Tara Erraught (Annio), Rolando Villazón (Tito), Adam Plachetka (Publico), RIAS Kammerchor, Yannick Nézet-Séguin

As in the other items of his Mozart opera series recorded live in Baden-Baden, Yannick Nézet-Seguin offers a performance of unusual polish and clarity, concerned rather in musical than theatrical values. There is no criticism in saying this. There are many conductors who are able to thrill their audiences with the exciting playing of their orchestra and new insight into the structure of a particular work. Alas, this not the case here. The conductor’s intention of showing what every musician is singing or playing does not really add to a coherent statement in the context of ultrasmooth orchestral playing in which accent is imposed upon rather than produced from within. This intent of clarity for clarity’s sake has the side effect of lack of forward movement, and one often has the feeling that things could move a little bit faster, even when they are not really slow. The Chamber Orchestra of Europe is not to blame for the maestro’s choice. Their playing is beautiful and colorful in an almost abstract way. I feel less inclined to exempt the RIAS Kammerchor, whose choristers seem to be sleepwalking through the Capitol set on fire. Both finale literally hang fire, and a recorded sound favorable to singers makes things even less dramatic. Nézet-Séguin has again a typical festival casting, not only in the sense that these are singers favored by audiences in Salzburg, Munich and Baden-Baden, but also in the impression that they do not seem to inhabit the same expressive, stylistic and emotional background. In any case, if I say that this is probably the most like-minded group of singers in the series, this has to do with the fact that every one of them seems to be trying to overcompensate the presiding lack of enthusiasm. At first Marina Rebeka seems to be too sweet-toned for Vitellia, but she soon proves to be determined to show some edge in her singing and offers a lesson in adding spice to Mozartian lines without making violence to the style. There have been more characterful sopranos in this role, but I doubt that anyone sing this difficult part as adeptly as she does here. Joyce DiDonato is an experienced Sesto. She has predictably no trouble with the coloratura and uses the text expertly. Unfortunately, this is not her best best recorded performance in this role. Here her low register lacks color and some of her exposed high notes show some flutter. Rollando Villazón’s tenor too has seen better days. Here he squeezes his high notes and disfigures his lines with glottal sounds. In terms of interpretation, it is so invariably intense that, after a while, it just sounds like nervousness. Tara Erraught’s grainy mezzo is apt to the part of Annio. This is probably her best recording so far. Regula Mühlemann is a light- and bell-toned Servilia who rises to the challenge of the climactic high notes in the end of her aria. Adam Plachetka is a bit heavy-handed and lugubrious as Publio.

JÉRÉMIE RHORER, 2014
Karina Gauvin (Vitellia), Julie Fuchs (Servilia), Kate Lindsey (Sesto), Julie Boulianne (Annio), Kurt Streit (Tito), Robert Gleadow (Publio), Ensemble Aedes, Le Cercle de l’Harmonie, Jérémie Rhorer

Jérémie Rhorer’s La Clemenza di Tito was recorded live in the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, in the context of a series of Mozart operas the recordings of which expanded his reputations in this repertoire outside France. His orchestra, Le Cercle de l’Harmonie is not immediately seductive in sound, and yet the strings have a touch of astringency, put to good use in a punchy, vivid sound picture. The conductor’s management of tempi serves the purpose of the right balance between musical and theatrical values and the eschewal of empty effect. Similarly, the chorus is rather undernourished, but the large ensembles do not hang fire in their absolute structural clarity and sense of drama. In spite of its flaws, this is a performance of unusual intelligence, sense of style.  The choice of baroque opera diva Karina Gauvin for the formidable role of Vitellia may seem surprising, but she wholeheartedly embraces the virago attitude, spitting her recitatives with panache and singing her lines in the full richness of her soprano. She delves most naturally in chest voice for the very low notes required by Mozart, but unfortunately tiptoes in every incursion above high a and produces a truly underwhelming account of the acuti of Vengo… aspetatte… . On the plus side, she tackles many difficult with unusual accuracy and shows no reluctance before trills. Kate Lindsey is a sensitive Sesto. Her mezzo remains, though, light for the role and heroic moments takes her to her limits, most notably in the end of Parto, ma tu ben mio, but sings with poise and has no problem with mezza voce. An experienced and stylish Mozartian, Kurt Streit is here past his prime in the role of Tito. It is true that the sense of line, the imagination for ornamentation, the elegant phrasing and the clean fioriture are still there, but passaggio is now handled in a glaringly open tone and, when he has to cover his high notes, they turn up tremulous and effortful. Julie Boulianne’s velvety and homogeneous voice is an asset for the role of Annio, but it is Julie Fuchs who almost steals the show with an exemplary, touchingly sung Servilia. Robert Gleadow is a forceful Publio with clear divisions, but the voice has an open-toned metallic quality not to everyone’s taste.

ALESSANDRO DE MARCHI, 2013
Nina Bernsteiner (Vitellia), Dana Marbach (Servilia), Kate Aldrich (Sesto), Ann-Beth Solvang (Annio), Carlo Allemano (Tito), Marcell Bakonyi (Publio), Coro e Orchestra dell’Academia Montis Regalis, Alessandro de Marchi

Recorded live during performances in Innsbruck, these CDs feature the edition prepared from performances in the Theater am Kärtnertor in Vienna in 1804. This not only means the replacement of all tenor arias for showier pieces composed by Joseph Weigl and Johann Simon Mayr, but also the deletion (Annio’s Tu fosti tradito) or new placement of some numbers (here Come ti piace imponi comes right after the overture, followed by the originally preceding recitativo, also adapted to merge with the one before Vitellia’s first aria). In order to make things more 1804-ish, recitatives are accompanied by a cello mostly arpeggiating chords over the pedal note played by a double bass. I cannot say if am too used to the way Mozart expected it to sound or if it just is ineffective in its impression of incompleteness and emptiness. To say the truth, the excessive and disfiguring ornamentation employed in vocal lines, even when the affetto demands something gentler and more discrete, is the reason why I won’t probably listen to these CDs again (and also the fact that Mozart’s arias for Tito are an evidence of why you know who Mozart is… and probably never heard about Weigl before). Although De Marchi has interesting ideas about tempo, his orchestra sounds so undernourished as if we had almost one or two instruments per part that never blend into a real “orchestral sound”. There are moments when one has the impression that soloists could almost be singing a capella! The choral singing is similarly undernourished and unatmospheric. This is enhanced by the dry recorded sound (and I have the impression that there are tiny distortions at some points). Nina Bernsteiner is a very interesting choice for Vitellia. Although her soprano is light in tone, it is sturdy enough for the extreme needs in both ends of the long range and flexible enough for the coloratura. She also has the necessary theatrical flair and uses the text for dramatic purposes always within the limits of Mozartian style. I would like to hear her in this part again under more proper circumstances. I had seen Kate Aldrich in roles like Carmen or Adriano (in Wagner’s Rienzi) and found it curious to read her name in the cast of an opera seria. Indeed, she sounds here as if she were singing Carmen or Adriano. One must concede that she handles the roulades in Parto, ma tu ben mio truly adeptly. Better than some singers otherwise more Mozartian than her. Carlo Allemano too sounds like the pocket version of José Carreras. Considering that most of what he sings here was written after Mozart’s death, it is hard to say if this is an advantage or not. In any case, the alternative arias are indeed demanding and he tackles them commendably. Dana Marbach has a shaky start to her aria, but elsewhere sounds lovely as Servilia. Ann-Beth Solvang is well cast as Annio and Marcell Bakonyi is not the first Publio light-toned and light-hued for the part.

PINCHAS STEINBERG, 2006
Véronique Gens (Vitellia), Alexia Voulgaridou (Servilia), Vesselina Kasarova (Sesto), Michelle Breedt (Annio), Charles Castronovo (Tito), Paolo Battaglia (Publio), Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Münchner Rundfunkorchester, Pinchas Steinberg

Although Vesselina Kasarova’s un-Mozartian Sesto could be considered already well documented in two videos (from Salzburg and Zürich), RCA has decided to prepare an audio recording centered on her, taken from live performances in Munich. In Pinchas Steinberg’s well-behaved tempi, the rich-voiced Bulgarian mezzo-soprano’s fussying with note values and registers is less disturbing than live in Salzburg, where the conductor’s mannerisms seemed to boost hers. Those other than Kasarova’s admirers will find this a rather faceless release. Steinberg is a reliable conductor and has a good orchestra, faithfully recorded in hall perspective, but his is a non-approach: Mozart notes are all there respectfully and efficiently transferred from score to sound waves and one might consider it a more than decent evening in the opera house, but the fact is that repeated and comparative listenings might be too much for what has been preserved in these CDs. Although Véronique Gens is a musicianly and charming singer who deals rather well with the role’s difficulties (although the act I trio finds her overcautious), this role is so distant to her personality that in the end it sounds as a well-studied series of arie di concerto. That does not mean she is a careless interpreter – she sings her recitatives with knowledge of style and of dramatic situations, but the absence of iciness, petulance and attitude in her performance makes her someone completely different from what Vitellia is supposed to be. It is a matter of honour to any Servilia to steal the show with the duettino and her aria – Alexia Voulgaridou sings well, but does not do that. Michelle Breedt’s Annio ends on calling more attention with her homogeneous and velvety mezzo-soprano. When it comes to Charles Castronovo, I have to confess myself more inclined to like it than most reviewers. He is no Mozart tenor and, in the depths of his soul, he would rather be singing Donizetti, but there is something earnest and unstudied about his Tito that makes him something different of every other English or German tenor in this discography. Paolo Battaglia is a rich-toned and flexible Publio, comfortable even with the sprightly fast tempi Steinberg decided to apply to his aria.

FRANZ WELSER-MÖST, 2005
Eva Mei (Vitellia), Malin Hartelius (Servilia), Vesselina Karasova (Sesto), Liliana Nikiteanu (Annio), Jonas Kaufmann (Tito), Günther Groissböck (Publio), Chor und Orchester des Opernhauses Zürich, Franz Welser-Möst

Already caught on video back in 2003,  Vesselina Kasarova’s Sesto should have been deemed recorded when the Opernhaus Zürich has decided to record Mozart’s last opera. Her mannered, artificial Sesto should be a curiosity in the discography, while the opportunity for real stylish mezzo sopranos in this repertoire, such as Elina Garanca or Anna Bonitatibus or Joyce DiDonato, has been twice lost since then. On the other hand, there is something new in this video, which is the deletion of Sussmayr’s recitatives in favour of the bare declamation of a nutshell version of Caterino Mazzolà’s already abridged version of Metastasio’s verses. There are many things in the world that need fixing – starving childen in poor countries, to start the list – and nobody seems to bother about them. But Süssmayr’s recitatives apparently elicit in everyone’s hearts a strange willingness to do something about them. We had seen them cut, replaced by recitatives by other composers, you name it. The fact that Mozart himself approved them is, of course, of no consequence. As performed here, Metastasio’s verses sound amazingly unconvincing. There is only one Italian singer in the cast, Eva Mei and, although she reads her lines far better than the other singers, she still sounds as if she were reading them – and there is a simple reason for that: try to recite a text you have always known as the lyrics to a song and you will see you will keep the rhythm set by the composer, instead of that of natural speech. As a footnote, someone in the production has a problem with the Italian word “germano” and has it replaced by “fratello” throughout. Don’t ask me why. Back to the musical aspects of the performance, Franz Welser-Möst offers a virtually perfect performance – rich yet flexible orchestral sound, clear perspective, rhythmic vitality, sense of theatre – except when he presses the “touching melody” button. When this happens, the pace gets slack, the clarity is gone and one starts to look at his wristwatch. As one might imagine, this has a perverse effect on Kasarova, who finds in the conductor an ally to transform Parto, ma tu ben mio in spineless chanting. When the curtains open, one is surprised to see Eva Mei at her most glamourous and sexy and starts to wonder what this new attitude could do to her Vitellia. Unfortunately, the chic does not go into her singing, which remains rather cold and uninvolved. Although she has reserves of chest resonance for the low notes, her basic sound is too gentle for the circumstances. Curiously, Malin Hartelius’s tone has become smoky and quite unfocused and her Servilia does not leave much of an impression. Among the female singers, only Liliana Nikiteanu (Annio) seems to be in good voice and animated to produce an interpretation. Jonas Kaufmann is an avis rara in this discography – his tenor suggested by then a jugendlich dramatisch (he had sung Florestan in the same theater), but still retained some flexibility. His sound is darker and more plangent that one is used to hear, but – even if his runs in All’impero are a bit cautious – his results are unusually clean and musicianly. Finally, Günther Groissböck is a decent Publio. Jonathan Miller places the action around the 1930’s and Isabella Bywater’s costumes and sets are elegant and efficient. Only the burning of the Capitol could be a bit more dramatic.

SYLVAIN CAMBRELING, 2005
Catherine Naglestad (Vitellia), Ekaterina Siurina (Servilia), Susan Graham (Sesto), Hanna Esther Minutillo (Annio), Cristoph Prégardien (Tito), Roland Bracht (Publio), Orchestre et Choeur de l’Opéra National de Paris, Sylvain Cambreling

Ursel and Karl-Ernst Herrmann’s production for the Opéra de Paris has exquisite costumes are exquisite, but the directors tend to make their actors overybusy, which is entirely unnecessary when one has such a talented cast in what refers to stage skills. In the prima donna role, Catherine Naglestad displays such impressive acting that she could be awarded a Tony if she performed it on Broadway. Although her tone is not immediately attractive and her coloratura in Deh se piacer mi vuoi is completely blurred, her sensitive phrasing, full creamy top notes, control of dynamics and acceptable negotiating of low notes are praiseworthy. She should work on her Italian, though. Susan Graham too has a mesmerizing stage presence and offers one of the most touching renditions of the role of Sesto in recordings. It is true that her low register lacks space these days, but her stylish, expressive phrasing is more than compensation. Hanna Ester Minutillo is an intelligent singer, but her tone may sound bleached out in the most exposed passages. Ekaterina Siurina’s soprano may be too leggiero for Servilia, but she avoids any hint of soubrettishness and sings her aria exquisitely. When it comes to the male singers in the cast, one must be a bit more tolerant. When this has been recorded, the high register in Cristoph Prégardien’s tenor had become entirely juiceless. As a result, his every ascent to top notes sound effortful and uncomfortable. Although his Italian has a hint of an accent, he handles his recitatives with imagination. Finally, Roland Bracht’s bass is rusty and rather clumsy. Sylvain Cambreling’s conducting is kapellmeisterlich in the bad sense of the word – it is thoroughly lackadaisical, but within the limits of what is considered stylish for Mozart nowadays. His phrasing is too soft-centered and, even if his tempi are more or less well-chosen, his flaccid accents make them sound often a bit sluggish. There is a tiny amount of freedom about the score going on here – some of the words in recitatives don’t seem to come from Caterino Mazzolà’s edition and the conductor allowed Vitellia to stay silent during the finale ultimo.

RENÉ JACOBS, 2005
Alexandrina Pendatchanska (Vitellia), Sunhae Im (Servilia), Bernarda Fink (Sesto), Marie-Claude Chappuis (Annio), Mark Padmore (Tito), Sergio Foresti (Publio), RIAS Kammerchor, Freiburg Barockorchester, René Jacobs

While Charles Mackerras (see below) scored all his points on trusting Mozart’s score and letting it speak by itself, René Jacobs seems to have felt the urge to do something to give a hand to the master. The result is that one is inclined to feel that the classical motto, inutilia truncat, should be applied to the notes not written by the composer, such as the intrusive fortepiano playing who disfigures public scenes with a sound intrinsically “intimate”. The sudden and extreme ritardando and accelerando effects are also puzzling and make numbers inorganic within themselves, the dramatic point intended lost out of calling too much attention to itself. The excess goes into the field of vocal decoration: some embellishment applied to “A” sections is downright abusive and does not match the direct expressive style intended by the composer, such as in the charming duettino for Servilia and Annio, here transformed into a competition of re-writing. All that said, this is my favourite entry in the Jacobs series of Mozart opera recordings, his “baroque-isms” seem more proper to this opera seria than to the Da Ponte trilogy and some moments are particularly dramatic, such as the act I finale. In any case, if you do want to hear an intense and adventurous performance of this opera, you should really try Harnoncourt’s theatrical performance on Teldec. Alexandrina Pendatchanska is one of the rare singers whose voices seem taylor-made to a role with such a schyzophrenic tessitura. Her basically metallic and powerful soprano is not exactly beguiling, but she sings with amazing bravura and feeling for Mozartian phrasing. Because of her tonal quality and intense manners, her Vitellia is doomed to sound aggressive and bossy from the start, but she could have fared better without decoration involving extra top notes that only bring out the harsh side of her voice. As Servilia, Sunhae Im displays a light bell-like soprano and feminine and sensitive phrasing. In the castrato role, Bernarda Fink brings her customary intensity, sense of style and expressiveness. Although hers is a most appealing voice, it does seem less compact these days and some of the most exposed moments, such as the stretta of Parto, ma tu ben mio, sound less impressive than one should expect. Mark Padmore is the lightest-toned Tito in the discography. In broadcast, his top register tended to bleach out into dimness, but in the official release this is not a problem. Although the tone does get disembodied up there, he is an intelligent and stylish singer who builds a more fragile character than we are used to hear. Marie-Claude Chappuis is a clear firm-toned Annio and Sergio Foresti is a varied and idiomatic Publio. There is a lot of extra lines in recitatives, but this does not seem to be an advantage when the continuo is fussy to a point of making harmony a bit confuse.

CHARLES MACKERAS, 2005
Hillevi Martinpelto (Vitellia), Lisa Milne (Servilia), Magdalena Kozena (Sesto), Christine Rice (Annio), Rainer Trost (Tito), John Relyea (Publio), Scottich Chamber Chorus and Orchestra, Charles MacKerras

Charles Mackerras crowns his Mozartian series with a mature performance the all-round stylishness and sobriety of which could only be achieved by such an experienced and scholarly conductor. The rich yet light textures of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s sound make for absolute structural clarity and every choice of tempi and phrasing is grounded on the complete faith on Mozart’s score. If I had to complain about something is that the chorus seems to be made of well-intentioned and behaved lads and lasses to whom anything related to Italy, let alone classical drama, is something almost unimaginable. Because of their unidiomatic and unconcerned singing, the dramatic situation in the act I finale is seriously underplayed. We are lucky, though, to find a more than commendable team of soloists. Although Hillevi Martinpelto’s soprano has lost some of its loveliness and acquired the hint of a flutter in explosed top notes, her Vitellia is one of the most smoothly sung in the discography. She also brings a certain vulnerability and femininity even in the lowest part of her range that make her particularly seductive and pleasing to the ears. Lisa Milne’s warmer and fruitier soprano is aptly cast for Servilia. Hers is an urgent and appealing performance. Truth be said, the most beautiful voice in this recording is probably Magdalena Kozena’s and this does not seem to make lots of sense in this context. Her unheroic crystalline high mezzo does not fit the part – she always sounds like a very charming girl not entirely comfortable with the dramatic writing required from her. Although her elegant phrasing, expressive delivery of the text and spectacular coloratura cause a strong impression in her arias, the most exposed passages make for congested tone and absence of legato. Another difficult piece of casting is the title role, originally intended for Ian Bostridge and finally taken by Rainer Trost. It is true that this stylish German tenor now displays a dried-out top register and his divisions in Se all’impero are articulated in an odd gargling manner, but his voice is still handsome and forceful enough for this part. Christine Rice is a strong Annio, whose voice would seem more proper for the primo uomo role, if her top register were a bit more comfortable, and John Relyea is a reliable firm-toned Publio.

NIKOLAUS HARNONCOURT, 2003
Dorothea Röschmann (Vitellia), Barbara Bonney (Servilia), Vesselina Kasarova (Sesto), Elina Garanca (Annio), Michael Schade (Tito), Luca Pisaroni (Publio), Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor, Wiener Philharmoniker, Nikolaus Harnoncourt

Nikolaus Harnoncourt has a master touch for boosting musical-dramatic effects in opera seria and knows how to point out the modern features Mozart introduced in the genre, but his legendary mannerisms have grown more evident too along the years. Although nothing really bizarre goes on here, his playing with internal tempo destroys horizontal clarity in numbers famous for their noble melodic features, such as Sesto’s showpiece Parto, ma tu ben mio. This is highlighted whenever the singer taking the primo uomo role appears. Vesselina Kasarova has a voice with amazing resources – it is powerful, bright and ductile, but her manipulation of low register has become cumbersome and her languid artifficially overcharged performance does not add but robs the expressive power of Mozart’s vocal writing. Compare her with Susan Graham in the Paris video and you will see my point. In the key role of Vitellia, Dorothea Röschmann is far more convincing and the all-out approach is made less obvious than usually because hers is basically a velvety lyric soprano. The lower end of her voice is not easy, though, and this unbalances her rendition of Non più di fiori. Elina Garanca offers a faultless performance in the role of Annio and one keeps wondering what a marvelous Sesto she might be. Alas, it is a bit late for Barbara Bonney, whose legato is no longer functional, although the basic tonal quality is still lovely. There is also Luca Pisaroni’s firm-toned Publio, who benefits from the slow tempo given to his aria to fill in the blanks with his pleasant spontaneous baritone. Jens Kilian’s use of the difficult stage of the Felsenreitschule in Salzburg is praiseworthy, although I cannot see the reason for having Tito singing among brooms, sinks and all kinds of construction waste. Bettina Walter’s costumes are also beautiful, but I do not see the point of having poor Röschmann undress them whenever she has to sing an aria. Even if Catherina Zeta-Jones were playing the part of Vitellia, it would be difficult to see the point. I really do not know what to say about Martin Kusej’s stage direction. At first, it seemed that director’s objetive was to give a realistic approach and to put the girls in the cast in lesbian-chic situations, but in the end those singers were made to look overwrought and silly – I would say with the possible exception of Röschmann, but then the director seemed he had to work harder on her and made her look positively ridiculous in her main aria. When it comes to Kasarova, it is admirable the effort she has to employ to bend her rather modest natural attittude into something wilder, but why a director would force an actor’s nature into complete discomfort? In any case, the most serious victim is Michael Schade. Although his tenor is on the nasal metallic side, he has built a reputation in this very repertoire. Alas, the director made he look like a delusional pacient in a serious manic fit throughout the whole opera. When Sesto refers to his “usual gentleness”, the audience might have thought he was talking of someone else. It is true, though, that Schade seems to be a good actor, but the intensity required from him is downright comic. Unfortunately, he let it pervade his singing and distorted tone creeps into his phrasing more and more to the point when it has the advantage over any attempt of bel canto when it comes to his most difficult aria. With all musical forces involved, a wasted opportunity.

JED WENTZ, 2002
Claudia Patacca (Vitellia), Francine van der Heyden (Servilia), Cécile van de Sant (Sesto), Nicola Wemyss (Annio), André Post (Tito), Marc Pantus (Publio), Vocal Ensemble Cocu, Musica ad Rhenum, Jed Wentz

Jed Wentz’s recording, ordered by Brilliant Classics for their Complete Mozart Edition, is essentially a small-scaled affair with modest forces and reliable if unmemorable soloists. The conductor is a stylish Mozartian who prefers playing safe to bravado. Thus, the choice of tempi seems to be subject to accomodating the needs of the orchestra and singers, what makes for a clear but unexciting performance. Taking the role of Vitellia, Claudia Patacca is the most interesting member of the cast. Her bright and pleasant soprano keeps its tonal quality throughout the long range and she phrases with knowledge of Mozartian style. However, as the other singers in this recording, she has a fancy for over-the-top decoration. Cécile van de Sant is a light-toned Sesto. She is far from electrifying from the vocal and interpretative point of view, but fulfills all the basic requirements of her part. In the title role, André Post displays an agreable natural tenor, but his top register is a bit off-the-mark. Nicola Wemyss is a soprano Annio who copes really well with the lower end of the tessitura and Marc Pantus is a light flexible Publio, but Francine van der Heyden lacks a sweeter tone for the role of Servilia.

CRISTOPHER HOGWOOD, 1994
Della Jones (Vitellia), Barbara Bonney (Servilia), Cecilia Bartoli (Sesto), Diana Montague (Annio), Uwe Heilmann (Tito), Gilles Cachemaille (Publio), The Academy of Ancient Music Orchestra and Chorus, Christopher Hogwood

If La Clemenza di Tito were a piece of sacred music, Cristopher Hogwood’s would be its best recording. It is lovingly played, sung and conducted – but one would have to use his imagination to see the drama here. Beautifully as it sounds, Barbara Bonney seems to be singing the Coronation Mass, partnered by Diana Montague, Uwe Heilmann and Gilles Cachemaille. Let us speak then of the singers who understood that this opera requires far more than that. Cecilia Bartoli was in her pre-freakish days and her native Italian makes wonders in recitative. However, the tone lacks brightness and punch and her legato could be improved. The truth is that she is overshadowed by Della Jones, who is a most impressive Vitellia – in my opinion, the most accomplished in the discography. Although her registers are not completely blended, she has exciting top and low notes and uses this very difference of register to dramatic purposes. Her phrasing is stylish, her coloratura is praiseworthy and her decoration is admirable. The role is impressively sung throughout and she is the reason why I keep this performance.

NIKOLAUS HARNONCOURT, 1993
Lucia Popp (Vitellia), Ruth Ziesak (Servilia), Ann Murray (Sesto), Delores Ziegler (Annio), Philip Langridge (Tito), Lázlo Polgár (Publio), Chor und Orchester der Oper Zürich, Nikolaus Harnoncourt

Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s performance’s shining feature is the conductor’s attention to the score’s musical-dramatic effects. A wonderful example of the interpretative possibilities in late Mozart, it is nicely played and recorded, in spite of an irregular cast. This was Lucia Popp’s last recorded operatic performance, made when she was already very ill. This explains why some top notes are not exactly sweet (something quite unusual with this singer). Even though, her Vitellia is still strong competition, especially in what regards homogeneity of registers and legato. Moreover, on making this Vitellia more human and feminine, she makes her volte-face more believable. Sample her Non più di fiori and you will understand. Ann Murray could also be an excellent Sesto – she is a sensitive performer, has a handsome voice and adept coloratura, but the top register spreads too much for comfort. Philip Langridge is not in good voice and Ruth Ziesak was not at her most inspired. The roles of Annio and Publio are in the reliable hands of Delores Ziegler and Lászlo Polgár.

JOHN ELIOT GARDINER, 1990
Julia Varady (Vitellia), Sylvia McNair (Servilia), Anne Sofie von Otter (Sesto), Catherine Robbin (Annio), Anthony Rolfe-Johnson (Tito), Cornelius Hauptmann (Publio), Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner

John Eliot Gardiner’s tempi and phrasing are exemplary  and there is nothing to fault here, although the thrill of listening this music played by a world-class period instrument orchestra has faded away since 1990. The performance (caught live at the Queen Elizabeth Hall) seems somewhat conventional today, when other period-instrument groups produce even more exciting sounds or when modern-instrument orchestras have adapted their technique to cope with classical (and baroque) stylistic demands. Also, the recorded sound, if good, is not the last word in clarity either. Julia Varady is still an impressive Vitellia, but her Italian is not still quite idiomatic. Sylvia McNair is a charming Servillia, but Anne Sofie von Otter, apart from exciting coloratura in the stretta of Parto, ma tu ben mio, is not really memorable here. The voice lacks punch and sounds quite pale with the exception of her exquisite mezza voce. Now Anthony Rolfe-Johnson is a major performance, one of the most accomplished accounts of this role in the discography.

RICCARDO MUTI, 1988
Carol Vaness (Vitellia), Christine Barbaux (Servilia), Delores Ziegler (Sesto), Martha Senn (Annio), Gösta Winbergh (Tito), Lázlo Polgár (Publio), Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor, Wiener Philharmoniker, Riccardo Muti

Riccardo Muti’s recording was made live in in one single evening in Salzburg’s Felsenreitschule. Again, the Vienna Philharmonic is a wonderful orchestra for Mozart and the conductor is extremely inspired. It offers rich orchestral sound which is nonetheless ductile and perfectly blended. The scale of the performance is rather grand, but Muti’s sense of phrasing and tempo in Mozart is masterly. His faster-and-faster ways in the first finale, for instance, are simply sensational. If he had a better cast and less stage-noisy recorded sound, it would be a must in any Mozart collection. Although Carol Vaness’s Vitellia is really impressive, her phrasing could be smoother. Gösta Winbergh’s Tito is also rather coarse and Christine Barbaux’s urgent Servillia involves some strain. Delores Ziegler is commited and stylish Sesto. Her velvety voice has a most natural lower register and her coloratura in Parto, ma tu ben mio (where she “interacts” beautifully with the basset horn in a naturally flowing tempo) is impressive.

ARNOLD ÖSTMAN, 1987
Anita Soldh (Vitellia), Pia-Marie Nilsson (Servilia), Lani Poulson (Sesto), Maria Höglind (Annio), Stefan Dahlberg (Tito), Jerker Arvidson (Publio), Drottnigholm Court Theatre, Arnold Östman

Arnold Östman recorded Tito in the Drottningholm Court Theatre, in a performance whose costumes, sceneries and machinery follow historical practices, although singers are invited to act according to today’s audiences tastes. The performance, although exquisitely conducted, with plenty of insight about Mozartian interpretation, is unfortunately not competitive, due to thin- and edgy-sounding orchestral playing. The cast is surprisingly good, considering the level of singing in this series, most of all the dark-voiced Tito of Stefan Dahlberg and the lovely Servilia of Pia-Marie Nilsson. Lani Poulson is an acceptable Sesto, but Anita Soldh simply does not have the right voice for Vitellia.

JAMES LEVINE, 1980
Carol Neblett (Vitellia), Catherine Malfitano (Servilia), Tatiana Troyanos (Sesto), Ann Howells (Annio), Eric Tappy (Tito), Kurt Rydl (Publio), Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor, Wiener Philharmoniker, James Levine

James Levine’s dramatic and stylish performance is is the soundtrack to a film by Jean-Pierre Ponelle, in which singers dub what they had previously sung in studio. As with many Ponelle films, it tries to capture the aesthetics of the original performances with XVIIIth century costumes and stylized gestures, but the whole concept has aged beyond salvation. If it deserves some attention, this has to do with James Levine’s forceful yet stylish conducting, the Vienna Philharmonic’s brilliant playing and the opportunity to see the marvelous Tatiana Troyanos in one of her key roles, a legendary vocal display. The rest of the singers are quite indistinguished, most of all Carol Neblett, who is taxed by the low tessitura and has her uningratiating moment, and Eric Tappy, ill-at-ease with the fioriture.

KARL BÖHM, 1979
Julia Varady (Vitellia), Edith Mathis (Servilia), Teresa Berganza (Sesto), Marga Schiml (Annio), Peter Schreier (Tito), Theo Adam (Publio), Rundfunkchor Leipzig, Staatskapelle Dresden, Karl Böhm

In Karl Böhm’s stately and impressive recording, things are a bit slow for our modern ears, but the conductor had some tricks in his sleeves, such as stressing the dotted rhythms French-style in the march before the second finale. Also, the level of clarity of the final choir is unparalleled. Under his baton, the majestic playing of the Staatskapelle Dresden, wonderfully recorded. Julia Varady is in crystalline voice and offers an impressive Vitellia. Only her Non più di fiori could be a bit smoother. Edith Mathis is an efficient Servilia, the always musical Teresa Berganza is a bit past her best, but still lovely and Peter Schreier is in impressive voice and technique for Tito. This is one of his best recorded performances. Theo Adam is a strong-voiced Publio.

JAMES LEVINE, 1977
Carol Neblett (Vitellia), Catherine Malfitano (Servilia), Tatiana Troyanos (Sesto), Ann Howells (Annio), Werner Hollweg (Tito), Kurt Rydl (Publio), Chor der Wiener Staatsoper, Wiener Philharmoniker, James Levine

COLIN DAVIS, 1976
Janet Baker (Vitellia), Lucia Popp (Servilia), Yvonne Minton (Sesto), Frederica von Stade (Annio), Stuart Burrows (Tito), Robert Lloyd (Publio), Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Colin Davis

Colin Davis offers a grandiose performance of Tito featuring strong orchestral playing, massive choral singing and intense performances from his soloists. Although his approach is larger in scale than what Mozart might have had in mind, it does highlight the dramatic qualities of Mozart’s writing and brings to the fore the proto-Romantic qualities of the score without making violence to classical style. In the role of Vitellia, Janet Baker offers her customary intelligence (especially in recitatives) and handles embellishment and other technical difficulties with aplomb. However, the role is too high for her range and she indulges in some unglamorous sounds, not to mention the disappearance of the high d in the act I trio. Few other singers have brought upon such a tormented rendition of the role of Sesto such as Yvonne Minton does here. As much as her conductor, she draws her portrait in a large canvas, but her firm-toned mezzo and clear phrasing help her to stay within the limits of Mozartian style. Only the stretta of Parto, ma tu ben mio might disturb those used to smoother coloratura. Ideally cast, Frederica von Stade and Lucia Popp prove their legendary reputations in their immaculate and exquisitely sung accounts of Annio and Servilia’s arias and duettino. Stuart Burrows sings his arias with accuracy and stylishness. Also, his firmness of tone and reserves of power do create the grandeur his imperial role should have. Finally, the young Robert Lloyd is a forceful and dark-toned Publio.

ISTVÁN KERTÉSZ, 1967
Maria Casula (Vitellia), Lucia Popp (Servilia), Teresa Berganza (Sesto), Brigitte Fassbaender (Annio), Werner Krenn (Tito), Tugomir Franc (Publio), Wiener Staatsopernchor und orchester, István Kertész

Although Tito had been an opera which had been neglected by theatres and record companies, in the second half of XXth century it established itself in the repertoire and has had very good luck in the recording studio. The first studio recording was Kertesz’s, which is surprisingly good, even for today’s standards. The tempi are fluent and the playing is light and accurate, confirming the Hungarian conductors’ legendary good reputation as Mozartians. With one big disappointment, which is Maria Casula’s coarse, rather metallic and vibrant soprano, the cast is admirable. Lucia Popp sets her unsurpassed standard for the role of Servilia, Teresa Berganza is a delight for the ears, Brigitte Fassbaender is impressive and Werner Krenn was a real find for the role of Tito – his voice is beautiful and flexible and he has a good notion of Mozartian style. His Italian could be better, though.