Pros: Mozart's music. Welser-Möst, Kasarova, Kaufmann, Hartelius
Cons: Spoken Italian dialog DISASTER. Mei miscast as Vitellia. Disconnected staging.
WA MOZART: LA CLEMENZA DI TITO (K.621) from Zurich Opera 2005.
This DVD is a recording of live opera performance.
The Clemency of Titus, written in 1791, was Mozarts last opera. It is a formal work commissioned for the coronation of Leopold II of Bohemia, and so the Monarch in the title has to be portrayed in a good light. The opera has been experiencing a major surge in popularity in the last 2 decades after centuries of neglect due the recent emergence of many virtuoso Mozart singers capable of doing the work justice.
The story is a historical fiction centering on the failed assassination plot against the Roman Emperor Titus Vespasiano (Tito) by his childhood best friend Sextus (Sesto) and Sestos ambitious girlfriend Vitellia (whose father was killed in the power struggle that put Tito on top)... and how Tito deals with this treason. There are some complications along the way as Tito keeps getting rejected by the women he proposes marriage to; first Berenice, and then Sestos sister Servilia (who wants to marry Sestos best-friend Annio instead), before finally settling on Vitellia (after she had already set in motion the assassination attempt).
It is an opera seria in nature, a theatrically static piece with a serious political plot and featuring clear cut arias (songs) connected by secco recitatives (sung speech accompanied by forte piano). Mozart composed all the music, though relegated the recitatives to his understudy, Franz Sussmayr (who also completed much of his famous Requiem). In this performance, the secco recitative is replaced with spoken Italian dialog.
To see clips from this production, go to:
www.youtube.com/watch?v=G32buVYqTe8 (Tito's 1st aria, Deh piu sublime soglio)
www.youtube.com/watch?v=Od4cSCItjNU (Annio-Servilia duet, Ah, perdona il dolce affetto)
www.youtube.com/watch?v=JFmvp8Duc_M (Sesto's Act II aria, Deh, per questo istante solo)
Tito (Roman emperor) ::: Jonas Kaufmann (tenor)
Sesto (his childhood friend) ::: Vesselina Kasarova (mezzo-soprano)
Vitellia (Sestos ambitious girlfriend) ::: Eva Mei (soprano)
Annio (Sestos best-friend) ::: Liliana Nikiteanu (mezzo-soprano)
Servilia (Sestos sister, Annios girlfriend) ::: Malin Hartelius (soprano)
Publio (Titos captain of the guard) ::: Günther Groissböck (bass)
Conductor ::: Franz Welser-Möst / Orchestra of the Zurich Opera
Chorus Master ::: Ernst Raffelsberger / Chorus of the Zurich Opera
Stage Director ::: Jonathan Miller
To see photos from this production, go to: http://www.opernhaus.ch/e/media/fotodb/fotodb.php?prodID=254
The substitution of all the recitative by spoken dialog provided by Iso Camartin, turns the opera into an Italian version of a Singspiel. It might have worked better had more than 1 of the 5 principals been able to speak the language well, but they werent. And the lone Italian speaker, Eva Mei (Vitellia), doesn't successfully capitalize on her fluency of the language and sounds just as unnatural as the non-native speakers in the cast.
The Swedish soprano Malin Hartelius Servilia, somehow manages to sound the most natural during her spoken dialog even with her accent. The worst affected of the bunch is unfortunately the magnificent Vesselina Kasarovas Sesto, whose natural speaking voice is a tenth the size and masculinity of her singing voice. So she darkens it (after all, Sesto IS the show's leading man). That helps somewhat, but she lapses into her natural girly voice in the more emotional passages... And man, it is just plain weird.
The staging by Jonathan Miller is a rather modern minimalistic conceptual style with costume from the 1930's Italy (Tito looking like Mussolini). The set is very dark and dominated by a tall rotating cylindrical tower with a staircase wrapping around it. No set change and virtually no special effects except for some light/shadow projection onto the back stage during the assassination and burning of Rome sequence that ends Act I.
Im still getting used to the bareness of this scene in this production... especially after having seen the very dynamic choreography of it from the Salzburg 2003 DVD of the same opera. In Zurich nothing happens on stage! Miller had turned the tumult of the burning of the capital to cover up the (supposed) murder of the Emperor into an inward manifestation of Sestos psychological turmoil. A daring move of making the most potentially dynamic sequence in this already all too static opera into the most static scene in it.
All is salvaged only because Director Miller is blessed with an exceptionally commanding Sesto in Frau Kasarova, who can just stand there in the middle of the stage and convinces you with her charismatic presence and dramatic singing that Mozarts music has it right that there is a hellish commotion going on even though there is none of that happening on stage. I dont know how she pulls it off (and some will undoubtedly think she doesnt... there is such a disconnection between the music and the staging that the scene is a close call). I say she deserves a loud Brava! for it, and to Mr Miller (the ex-neurologist who is perhaps missing his old profession) I can only offer a very silent round of applause.
Musically, there is much to like about this performance. Maestro Franz Welser-Möst leads the Orchestra of the Zurich Opera in a brisk and decisive read of Mozarts wonderful score. I love his treatment of the overture... the lyrical part of it sounds almost like a Viennese waltz! The ending cadenza is a wonderful stormy rush, too. It is a young and vibrant read of the orchestra with tempi on the brisk side through out the performance, though the orchestra tends to be too loud during the ensemble numbers. It doesnt help that the sound engineering somehow favors the orchestra over the voice. And I am surprised that the knowledgeable Zurich opera crowd would break the tension of the music by applauding after the Act I trio, Vengo! Aspettate! instead of waiting until the end of the Act I finale to do so. Perhaps this irked Maestro Welser-Moest into rushing the connection between the ending of Vitellias Act II aria into the march into the arena? Making sure no one would dare interrupting the music by untimely clapping?
On the singing front, my verdict is mixed. German tenor Jonas Kaufmanns Tito is of the very tame too-good-to-be-true type, which is a bit odd considering his big tenor voice. For the heft of this voice, he has really wonderfully soft pianissimo (soft singing), though the voice is still too heavy and slow-moving to cope with Titos bravura Act II aria Se allimpero. Its like hearing a 10 tons truck barging through a string of mountainous S-curves. He is a good Tito overall; however, and the static choreography seems to fit his style well.
Im afraid Eva Mei was miscast as Vitellia. Her lyrical voice is simply not dramatic enough for the role and the lower passages of her 2 arias are a mighty struggle despite getting some help from the orchestra pit (Yeah, Maestro Welser-Moest actually helps her some, lowering the volume and slowing some tempo, etc). Theatrically she is just not believable in the role... it really is a big stretch for me to believe the way she plays Vitellia could inspire any lust in a man (and this is a good looking woman!), especially to the extent that he would attempt to kill his childhood best friend for her. Next to no chemistry exist between her and Kasarovas Sesto, and her sultry and sly portrayal of Vitellia from the beginning renders the transformation due to guilt-ridden conscience in the shows climatic Act II aria Non piu di fiori not credible (a self-centered angry diva portrayal would work better, I think. I can see a guy falling for a spoiled and feisty princess). She tries hard, but the role just doesnt fit her... And someone should tell her to not try so hard to not look at the camera, because she ends up looking like she is trying not to look at the camera most of the time.
The Bulgarian mezzo Vesselina Kasarova is in good form as Sesto and displays a very large stage presence despite of her trim figure (the dark suit doesnt help, often blending right in to the dark set). She is virtually untouchable in her signature role (and I love that she sings him differently in 3 recordings of this role). The trill on the high ending of traditor toward the end of the tortuous Act II aria Deh per questo istante solo along with her really worked up Sesto as Tito literally shrinks before her make for a rather novel image of the 2 being gay lovers before the curtain rises and the dominating Ex-boyfriend is now goading the sensitive Ex he tried to kill... Quite different from the usual read of Sesto pleading to Tito to spare him some warm thoughts of their friendship. She magnificently saves the utter nothingness of Act I finale ensemble and really spices up other scenes with her intensity. Any actress-in-training can use her as an example of how to look both at the live audience and the camera at the same time. The gal is just uncanny in always seeming to know exactly where the camera is at all time... She hogs the stage while doing hardly anything.
Romanian mezzo Lilianna Nikiteanu sings beautifully as a youthful Annio, blending well in her 2 duets and shines in both Act II arias. Theatrically she seem a bit misplaced, however. Her very expressive face with such wide-eyed earnestness make a weird contrast whenever she shares a scene with Kasarovas Sesto... Its like theyre from 2 different shows, Sesto being deep into a dramatic tragedy and Annio ...er... in a romantic comedy?
As Servilia is the wonderful Swedish soprano Malin Hartelius, who is everything I could hope for and more. She doesnt get much stage time, but makes every minute on it count. Basso Günther Groissböck is physically imposing as Publio, Titos right-hand man, though his voice is surprisingly light for the role.
All in all, it is a good but not great performance of this opera. The Sesto of Vesselina Kasarova and the Tito of Jonas Kaufmann are definite attractions and make the DVD worth buying for fans of Mozart opera, though Eva Mei really does not do Vitellia justice... And the substitution of spoken Italian dialog in place of secco recitative makes for choppy transition between the sung numbers and the dialog. After repeated viewing, if you are only looking for just one DVD of this opera, I recommend instead, the DVD from the 2003 Salzburg Festival (also available as part of the M22 Project).
1 DVD. Run-time: 124 min. Sung in Italian with subtitle in: English, French, German, Spanish, Italian. Booklet contains synopsis and comments on the production from interviews with the principals, the director, and the conductor in English, German, and French.
Other reviews of other Mozart opera:
Apollo et Hyacinthus (Salzburg 2006), Ascanio in Alba (Salzburg 2006), Bastien und Bastienne/Der Schauspieldirektor (Salzburg 2006), La clemenza di Tito (Salzburg 2003), La clemenza di Tito (Zürich 2005), La clemenza di Tito (Munich 2006), La clemenza di Tito (JE Gardiner), Cosi fan tutte (Ponnelle film), Don Giovanni (Met 2000), Die Entführung aus dem Serail (Salzburg 1998), La finta giardiniera (Salzburg 2006), La finta semplice (Salzburg 2006), Idomeneo (Salzburg 2006), Idomeneo (Met 198-), Lucio Silla (Salzburg 2006), Mitridate (Salzburg 1997), Mitridate (Rousset), Le nozze di Figaro (live performance- SDO 2007), Die Zauberflöte (ROH 2001), Die Zauberflöte (Modena 2005), Die Zauberflöte (Zürich 1999), Vesselina Kasarova: Mozart Arias, Edita Gruberova: Mozart Concert Arias