La Clemenza di Tito

ROBIN TICCIATI, 2017
Alice Coote (Vitellia), Joëlle Harvey (Servilia), Anna Stéphany (Sesto), Michèle Losier (Annio), Richard Croft (Tito), Clive Bayley (Publio), The Glyndebourne Chorus, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Robin Ticciati

Claus Guth’s production from Glyndebourne tries to reduce opera seria to psychological drama with plenty of video projection with black and white images of Tito and Sesto as children, but brings very little insight to their present relationship. Actually, the absence of the imperial scale in this staging makes the attitude of these characters towards each other quite odd. The fact that it is mostly staged in a wheat field bizarrely connected to Tito’s Bauhaus office, occasionally visited by a group of choreographed people in suits doesn’t help either. I have to say that some traditional stagings – wigs and crinolines involved – are far more successful in showing some truth about these characters. As it is, Robin Ticciati’s structurally clear and sprightly conducting, entirely unconnected to dramatic situations is consistent to an approach that suggests the frustration of the creative team in having to deal with opera seria. Being able to hear woodwind in such immediacy is always a good thing, but not if this involves strings that simply lack tone. That said, when the orchestra finally is in on mode, the sound is on the scrawny side. For a mezzo soprano, Alice Coote deals with Vitellia’s high notes quite commendably. Smoothness is not part of the deal, and there are some abrupt breaks into chest voice and some strained sounds in the top of her range, not to mention that the coloratura is approximative, but the tonal quality is interesting and, even sabotaged by costumes and direction, tries to make the most of what the libretto and the score give her. Even if Anna Stéphany’s timbre lack individuality, she rises impressively to the challenges of the part of Sesto, especially in the stretta of her big aria, where she offers excitingly accurate coloratura. Besides, she has an ideal physique for trouser roles. A stylish Mozartian, Richard Croft finds no difficulties in his three arias and his tenor is velvety and flexible. I wished he had not waited so long to record a part ideal for his voice, for there are one or three edgy corners that would have been rounded off even more adeptly some years earlier. Joélle Harvey is a fresh-toned Servilia, musicianly and elegant, lacking only the last ounce of charm. I am not so excited about Michèle Losier’s grainy Annio or Clive Bailey’s rusty Publio.

YANNICK NÉZET-SÉGUIN, 2017
Marina Rebeka (Vitellia), Regula Mühlemann (Servilia), Joyce DiDonato (Sesto), Tara Erraught (Annio), Rolando Villazón (Tito), Adam Plachetka (Publio), RIAS Kammerchor, Chamber Orchestra of Europe, 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 with 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 finali 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. 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. 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 and 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 runs with unusual accuracy and shows no reluctance before trills. Kate Lindsey is a sensitive Sesto who can sing with poise and has no problem with mezza voce.. 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. 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 the 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 this is just 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 (the act I trio finds her overcautious, it must be said), 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, 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 children 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 “expressive melody” button. When this happens, the pace gets slack, the clarity is gone and one starts to look at his or her 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 sees Eva Mei at her most glamourous and sexy, and yet 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 here sounds smoky and quite unfocused.  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 reliable 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 elaborate costumes and a miminalistic set, but the directors tend to make their actors overybusy, what 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 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, and yet 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 sounds rusty and his phrasing can be 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 lend the composer a hand. 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 sometimes does not match the direct expressive style intended by the composer, such as in the duettino for Servilia and Annio, here transformed into a re-writing competition. 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 (SEE BELOW). Alexandrina Pendatchanska is one of the rare singers whose voices seem tailor-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, the vulnerable and stylish Sunhae Im displays a light, bell-toned soprano. 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 underwhelming. Mark Padmore is the lightest-toned Tito in the discography. Although the tone does get disembodied in his high register, 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. The chorus, however, lacks dramatic engagement. Because of their unidiomatic and uninvolved singing, the dramatic situation in the act I finale is seriously underplayed. Although Hillevi Martinpelto’s soprano has lost some of its loveliness and acquired the hint of a flutter in explosive top notes, her Vitellia is one of the most smoothly sung in the discography. She suggests vulnerability and femininity even in the lowest part of her range. 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. Although her elegant phrasing, expressive delivery of the text and exciting coloratura make a strong impression, the most exposed passages show congested tone and absence of legato. Originally intended for Ian Bostridge, the role of Tito was finally given to 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 attractive and forceful enough for this part. Christine Rice is a fruity, intense Annio, and John Relyea rounds off the cast as 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 innovative features Mozart introduced in the genre, but his legendary mannerisms have grown more evident too along the years. His playing with internal tempo, for instance, impairs 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 many resources – it is powerful, bright and ductile, but her manipulation of low register has become cumbersome and her languid, artificially 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 this will be evident. In the key role of Vitellia, Dorothea Röschmann’s velvety lyric soprano makes adds an interesting dimension to the virago role. 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 can only imagine how much the performance would have benefited if she had been offered the role of Sesto. Barbara Bonney, in spite of a still lovely tonal quality, is clearly past her prime. With his pleasant-sounding baritone, Luca Pisaroni relishes the the slow tempo in Publio’s aria. 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, and one can only wonder why Ms. Röschmann is required to undress them whenever she has to sing an aria. Director Martin Kusej’s is keen on an excessive intensity that only seems to elicit a dangerous level of hamming from his singers,  the most serious victim being Michael Schade. Although his tenor is on the nasal metallic side, he has built a reputation in this very repertoire. This seems to have affected his singing, which ultimately sounds graceless and rough.

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 accommodating 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 agreeable 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

In his studio recording, Christopher Hogwood has gathered a stellar cast in a recording that surprisingly never takes off. At first, Hogwood appears in charge of the musical and dramatic demands – the beat is very flexible, responsive to the mood changes and there is clarity aplenty. After a while, it is impossible not to notice how the performance’s level of tension keeps sagging. The strings of the Academy of Ancient Music have a rather thin sound and the conductor’s fondness for bell-curve sonorities might have something to do with it. To make things worse, the chorus has no dramatic engagement. Della Jones is arguably the most accomplished Vitellia in the discography. Even if her registers are not completely blended, she has exciting top and low notes and uses this very difference between registers for dramatic purposes. Her phrasing is stylish, her coloratura is accurate and she energizes the performance whenever she sings. Cecilia Bartoli is the other singer who understands that this is not an oratorio. Being a native speaker, she sparks in recitatives and colors her tone expertly in her arias. The coloratura is, of course, not a problem for her. However, the tonal quality is rather opaque and her legato could be improved. Barbara Bonney sleepwalks here and has the bad habit of not supporting her tone until the end of phrases. Diana Montague, Andrew Davis’s Sesto (SEE BELOW), is a fruity-toned, rather cold Annio. There is nothing to fault in Uwe Heilmann’s singing of the part of Tito. The tone is fresh and pleasant, he has sense of style and handles the coloratura without ado. Nonetheless, his interpretation turns around a certain gentleness that sounds as if Ferrando or Belmonte appeared in the wrong opera. Gilles Cachemaille’s baritone sounds lightweight in the role of Publio, which requires more authority.

NIKOLAUS HARNONCOURT, 1993
Lucia Popp (Vitellia), Ruth Ziesak (Servilia), Ann Murray (Sesto), Delores Ziegler (Annio), Philip Langridge (Tito), Lászlo 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 fascinating example of the interpretative possibilities in late Mozart, Harnoncourt has in the forces of the Opernhaus Zürich a group of musicians committed to his vision, in which every element in Mozart’s score is rendered to create the theatrical experience of a plot involving even a failed coup d’état. This was Lucia Popp’s last recorded operatic performance, made when she was already very ill. Having recorded twice in studio the part of Servilia (SEE BELOW – COLIN DAVIS and KERTESZ), she is an unusually smooth Vitellia,  homogenous in tone throughout her range and keen on legato. Her eschewal of bitchiness in the first part of the opera makes the character’s  volte-face in the last scene more believable. An experienced Sesto (she sang the part to Renata Scotto’s Vitellia at the Met in 1984), Ann Murray is an expressive Sesto, unfortunately caught here a bit late.  Her mezzo can sound overvibrant and the top register spreads under pressure. Philip Langridge sounds here rather hollow-toned and unsteady as Tito. Ruth Ziesak is a pure-toned if rather cold Servilia. Delores Ziegler’s poised Annio sounds more soprano than mezzo. Lászlo Polgár is a noble-toned Publio.

ANDREW DAVIS, 1991
Ashley Putnam (Vitellia), Elzbieta Szmytka (Servilia), Diana Montague (Sesto), Martine Mahé (Annio), Philip Langridge (Tito), Peter Rose (Publio), The Glyndebourne Chorus, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Andrew Davis

The first video of La Clemenza di Tito from Glyndebourne was apparently recorded in an empty theatre and features Nicholas Hytner’s stylized production of Roman visual clichés (columns, togas, laurel wreaths, marble busts…) and fragments of neoclassic architectural design. The cameras take profits of the detailed Personenregie. Andrew Davis offers a good kapellmeisterlich performanc, in which everything is in place without the spark of animation to make it memorable. Ashley Putnam’s creamy lyric soprano is not the instrument to deal with the very high and low notes in the part of Vitellia, but other than this hers is a commendable account of a difficult role: she can hold a clear Mozartian line, is relatively in control of the coloratura and, even if a slight accent, handles the recitatives well. She has a statuesque figure and acts well too. Diana Montague, in spite of a monochrome voice, is a faultless Sesto – nimble in the coloratura, adept in legato and immaculate in style. Even if he is in better voice than in Harnoncourt’s recording, Philip Langridge fails to convince as Tito. He is not accurate with note values and sometimes with intonation, the tone is alternately too covered and too nasal and he tends to the emphatic. His Italian lacks naturalness too. Elzbieta Szmytka is a pure-toned, ideal Servilia, well matched to Martine Mahé’s fruity Annio. Peter Rose is a resonant Publio. For these performances, new recitatives were composed by Stephen Oliver. They are remarkably similar to Süssmayr’s but for the fact that they often sit in uncomfortable parts of the human voice and have some odd harmonic twists, not to mention some verses by Metastasio not used by Caterino Mazzolà in the libretto approved by Mozart (who, by the way, approved Süssmayr’s recitatives too).

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

Recorded live at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, John Eliot Gardiner’s performance is ultimately a matter of polish in the context of a historically informed performance, a relevant matter in the 1990’s, when period instrument orchestras managed to change the formed opinion according to which they would involve scrawny, poor intonation and squawky brass. Now conductors formerly associated with historical practices are regulars with the Berlin Philharmonic and, from this point of view, what one hears in a performance like the one recorded by DGG in London is that the conductor does not sustain tension in an approach that turns around undernourished strings, a certain squareness of beat and the sensation of constant sagging in the musical discourse, whose continuity seems to be entirely dependent on vocal soloists. In terms of result, the impression is of emotional detachment and absence of drama, in spite of the talents involved. Julia Varady does not sound really idiomatic in Italian, but this performance is, even in this department, superior to her studio recording (SEE BELOW – KARL BÖHM). Here, not only she sounds more plugged in, but also she is the only singer in the cast who sparks some animation in the proceedings. Nobody in the discography can boast a voice so tailor-made for the role of Vitellia as Varady, whose gleaming top notes, clear coloratura and mezzo-ish low register bring the role to life. Anne Sofie von Otter is a musicianly, stylish Sesto, adept in coloratura but pale in tone. Sylvia McNair is a pure-toned Servilia who sings with affection and poise. Anthony Rolfe-Johnson is ideally cast as Tito, the tone has a touch of metal and yet is ductile and flexible – and his phrasing is a lesson in Mozartian style. Catherine Robbin is a reliable Annio, more mezzo-ish in tone than we what one usually hears in that part. Cornelius Hauptmann sounds a bit woolly as Publio and is not helped by too fast a pace for his aria. Last but not least, the Monteverdi Choir is one of this performance’s strongest assets.

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. The Italian conductor’s structural coherence is unparalleled in this discography – in each number, the listener will easily understand the development of each musical idea in the intelligent way the conductor shapes dynamics, pace and accent. Orchestra and singers complement each other and, even in the grand scale of the performance, all sections of the orchestra sound in perfect balance.  Moreover, no trait of this musical interpretation sounds mannered or whimsical, everything sounds informed by the dramatic situations in the libretto. The Vienna Philharmonic, again, is the ideal orchestra for a performance wide-ranging and musically exacting such as this is. Most unfortunately, the recorded sound is a liability – the difficult venue makes for an unclear sound picture and there is a high level of stage noise. However, if the cast has exciting voices and personalities, most of the singing here is more hot-blooded than poised. Without patching sessions, the quota of flaws might be too high for home listening. Carol Vaness’s extra-rich soprano with reserves of resonance in its lower register is the voice for Vitellia. She sings it entirely in capital letters – even Non più di fiori – so don’t expect smoothness. Gösta Winbergh used to be Salzburg’s go-to Mozart tenor in the 1980’s, but here sounds coarse and emphatic. In an entirely stylistic universe is Delores Ziegler, a velvety-toned Sesto with excellent coloratura, a natural low register and dramatically committed without making violence to Mozart. Martha Senn sounds strained as Annio. Christine Barbaux’s urgent Servilia too has her tense moments. Lászlo Polgár is again an elegant Publio.

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 are inspired by historical practices. As a matter of fact, Göran Järvefelt’s direction is neither faithful to XVIIIth century stock gestures nor to modern acting style. It comes across rather as unconvincing.  In any case, it is a useful document to understand the scale of operatic performances in the end of XVIIIth century. As one can hear in the overture, Östman is a conductor with knowledge of period practices and an instinctive grasp of structural clarity and Mozartian phrasing. His orchestra sounds on the thin and scrawny side and he has to rely in accent in the context of fast (sometimes insensitively fast) tempi to sustain this performance. Even if Anita Soldh is a resourceful and stylish singer, she is a Susanna trying to make do as Vitellia. She never forces her tone and predictably never comes close to cause the right impression in the role. Lani Poulson’s fleece-toned mezzo is flexible enough for the part of Sesto and she sings with sense of style if without much imagination. Stefan Dahlberg’s tenor has more than a splash of baritone, but he is not afraid of high notes. He sings with little legato, and yet his coloratura quite decent. Maria Höglind (Sesto) tiptoes in her high notes and leaves something to be desired in terms of intonation. Pia-Marie Nilsson is a pure-toned Servilia who offers a beautiful account of S’altro che lacrime. Jerker Arvidson’s bass lacks roundness for the part of Publio.

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 performance is the soundtrack for a film directed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle and was recorded on studio in Vienna. The recitatives seem to be recorded in entirely different acoustics, and it is unclear if singers actually recorded them in location in Rome*. The harpsichord, in particular, sounds recorded from very close. Levine has always championed the work at the Metropolitan Opera House after having conducted it in Salzburg with almost the same cast heard here. He leads a performance in grand scale, with strong accents, rich, flexible playing of the Vienna Philharmonic, woodwind in prominence. If the performance is not more convincing, this has to do with the artificial recorded sound, sometimes too favorable to singers. The cast is dominated by Tatiana Troyanos’s intense Sesto, whose reedy, spacious mezzo soprano adds a heroic dimension to the part, without any loss in suppleness. The stretta to Parto, ma tu ben mio is one of the highlights of this DVD. Carol Neblett’s big, complex soprano has the flashiness for the role of Vitellia, but her technique is not entirely up to it. She makes do in her low register, sometimes transposing up and some notes sound basically harsh. Catherine Malfitano is quite metallic in tone as Servilia and her Italian is bit indistinct. Anne Howells sounds monochrome as Annio, but Kurt Rydl is a strong Publio. 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. Eric Tappy is a sensitive, firm-toned Sesto, but is ill at ease with the coloratura in Se all’impero.

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

Karl Böhm’s studio recording is like a piece of Greek revival architecture, stately and marmoreal in its perfect proportions and adapted to contemporary tastes. One is right to observe that tempi are often slow, that recitatives are lifeless and that the cast is more imposing than impressive, and yet the conductor’s structural clarity is almost unmatched, the Staatskapelle Dresden is at once luxuriant and flexible, ideally balanced, the Leipzig Radio Chorus sounds so glorious and the accents are so vivid – one almost doesn’t feel how slow some numbers could seem – that I find it very hard to dismiss in spite of its outdatedness. The recorded sound is spacious, singers closely recorded against a sonorous orchestra, without excess of reverberation and in keeping with the scale of the conductor’s approach. Julia Varady was born to sing the part of Vitellia. What seems awkward in other singers here sounds brilliant and effective. Although her Italian is a bit cautious and in some moments she seems to be concerned about purely musical matters, her singing is so incandescent that it seems to take the performance to an even higher level. The single Southern European person in the Lukaskirche during the recording sessions, Teresa Berganza is a curiously faceless Sesto. She sings the role in an almost instrumental way and her rather generic interpretation turns around a vulnerable poise that comes close to the expression of annoyance with the prospect of a horrible death. Beautiful as her voice is, she sounds past her prime,  her high notes often constricted. Her performance for Kertesz (SEE BELOW) is preferable. In spite of accented Italian, Peter Schreier offers one of his best recorded performances here. He is in firm voice, finds no problem with coloratura and trills and the unsexy tonal quality allied to his elegant phrasing make him sound like the aural image of the Emperor Tito. Marga Schiml is rather thick-toned as Sesto, but the voice has a certain fruity charm. Edith Mathis is a warm-toned, austere Servilia, but Theo Adam has his unstable moments as 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

It is unfortunate that La Clemenza di Tito seems in Salzburg doomed to be performed in the Felsenreitschule, the acoustics of which are always tricky for the microphones. In any case, compared to the studio recording made three years later, the radio release of the live performance of August 3rd is far more natural, even if there is a great deal of reverberation around voices (the chorus especially). Live, Levine seems to favor slightly faster tempi and punch over polish, what becomes Levine’s concept of drama in large scale. Without the help of patching sessions, Carol Neblett’s Vitellia is a bumpy ride – her high register often looses focus and everything can happen when she is require to produce low notes. On the plus side, she is a little bit more varied here and the coloratura in her first aria is really superior to what she did in studio three years later. Tatiana Troyanos is even more expressive live – and the effect on her voice in the spacious hall makes it even more thrilling. Anne Howells is in fresher, brighter voice here, and Catherine Malfitano gives a more interesting if ultimately flawed account of her aria. Kurt Rydl sounds slightly less dark than in studio. Werner Hollweg is hardly an improvement compared to Eric Tappy, except in what regards the coloratura. He clearly is not in a good voice day, indulges in many strange mannerisms and his treatment of recitatives goes sometimes in what regards note values among other lapses of taste.

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 and she produces some unglamorous sounds now and then. The high high d in the act I trio is transposed down anyway. Yvonne Minton is a committed Sesto who 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. The stretta of Parto, ma tu ben mio is not her best moment, and the coloratura sounds aspirated and a tad mechanical. 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, sense of Mozartian style and just a splash of metal to make him sound “imperial”. 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

The first studio recording of La Clemenza di Tito features the chorus and orchestra of the Vienna State Opera, but has not connection with stage performances – the opera had been staged in the Austrian opera house for the last time before this release in 1949 (under Josef Krips) only to return in 1977 (with Berganza as Sesto). Istvan Kertész’s tempi are fluent, the accents are precise, the orchestral playing is flexible and lean – it sounds surprisingly modern at times. The recorded sound is variable, yet generally natural and has both singers and orchestra in good balance. Recitative are trimmed to the minimal necessary for the understanding of the plot. Although there is only one native speaker in the cast, the other singers are generally adept with the Italian language and are mostly committed, but the continuo sounds a bit dismal. Maria Casula, a mezzo soprano Vitellia, handles her high notes better than some sopranos in the discography. Her basic tonal quality is not dissimilar to Carol Neblett’s, with the difference that Casula is more comfortable in both ends of her range – and her coloratura is marginally more confident. The voice tends to the monochrome – and the single color is not very pleasant. Although she is singing in her mother tongue, she does not make much of the text. In comparison with herself in Karl Böhm’s recording, Teresa Berganza sounds plugged in here. Her performance here is superior in every department – freshness of tone, agility, alertness. She remains placid of temper and too feminine for a breeches role, though. Werner Krenn is a stylish Tito, his spontaneous, flexible, light-toned tenor easy on the ear, not entirely idiomatic. Brigitte Fassbaender is a strong, firm-toned Annio and Lucia Popp sets unsurpassed standards for the role of Servilia. Other than a slightly woolly voice, Tugomir Franc is a satisfying Publio.