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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756–1791)
La clemenza di Tito (1791)
Michael Schade (tenor) – Tito; Vesselina Kasarova (mezzo) – Sesto; Dorothea Röschmann (soprano) – Vitellia; Elina Garanča (mezzo) – Annio; Barbara Bonney (soprano) – Servilia; Luca Pisaroni (bass) – Publio
Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor
Wiener Philharmoniker/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Directed for stage by Martin Kušej; Set Design: Jens Kilian; Costume Design: Bettina Walter; Lighting: Reinhard Traub; Directed for TV and Video by Brian Large
rec. live, Felsenreitschule, Salzburg, August 2003
TDK DVWW-OPCLETI DVD (2 discs) [160:00]


After all the initial rubbish before the actual performance - there must be opera lovers besides myself who would prefer to go straight to the kernel - we get some beautiful “Salzburg by Night” sequences and end up in the Felsenreitschule. There we encounter the eponymous hero, Tito, the Roman Emperor, making a telephone call! Aha, one of those journeys in time again! Misgivings arrive and are duly confirmed. The full stage picture is a kind of doll’s house in three floors with lots of small “rooms”, visible stairs between the floors. As the drama unfolds there is a lot of running up and down these stairs. Most of the action takes place, however, on a front stage. Tito is dressed, while making his call, in something remotely resembling a Roman toga, but when the other characters appear they are in more or less formal suits and modern dresses. Since most of the male characters are played by females (Sesto and Annio) neither of whom looks very masculine, we are in for a somewhat confusing evening. The director obviously wants to show that relationships are on the whole sexually motivated and the actors are encouraged to be very intimate.
 
I don’t really mind sensuality on stage but I have a creeping feeling that Martin Kušej is more after sensationalism. This concept also means that the actors, Dorothea Röschmann at least, is required to change clothes on stage. It is a comfort that present day’s opera singers are attractive to look at, even with a minimum of cover. To mark the topicality of the production there are even a couple of masked terrorists who set the imperial palace on fire, splashing petrol all over the place, resulting in a second act where most of the characters run about with sooty faces.
 
Do I seem bantering or negative? To some degree I am, but I have also tried to understand Kušej’s motives. Suppose that he wants to tell us that our present society, in spite of development and culture, is just as crude and primitive as Roman society, which was also known to be highly developed and cultural – and crude. When in the second act Sesto is found guilty of treachery he is to be thrown to the lions. We still use the expression in a figurative sense when leaking compromising information to the tabloid press. Sometimes, however, I wonder if Kušej just wants to show the improbability of the opera seria concept as a whole. In several scenes the action seems so over the top that it can only be meant as parody. The chorus’s first entry is as a group of - American? - tourists in casual dress. There are scenes - e.g. between Tito and Servilia - that verge on slap-stick. Tito himself is portrayed as neurotic, not to say mad. Michael Schade’s acting is utterly convincing. I came to think of the mad Danish king Christian VII, who married Caroline Mathilde, sister of George III of England, to British music lovers at least known through Peter Maxwell Davies’ ballet Caroline Mathilde.
 
My wife left after the first act, but I persevered. In the end I found the concept partly touching, partly amusing, and I hope interested readers have got some clue as to what the performance is like. The greatest problem is, as so often with stories transported in time, that the action jars with the music. In this case even more than usual, since Mozart’s music is anything but amusing and dramatic. Touching it is, to such a degree that it could just as well have been an oratorio. In fact large portions of this score might be sacred. Slow tempos dominate, and the recitatives - not by Mozart; it is generally believed to have been written by his pupil Süssmayr, the one who completed his Requiem - sometimes feel interminable. Nikolaus Harnoncourt is an experienced Mozartean and he has always liked to stress the extremes: powerful fortes and almost inaudible pianissimos. Abetted by the wonderful Vienna Philharmonic he presents this rich score as lushly as it is possible to imagine. However in the midst of all the beauty and all the inwardness there is a lack of momentum. Going back to the recent Mackerras recording for DG (audio only - see review), his is a leaner and more sharply etched sound, but the real culprit in this case is Mozart himself, who certainly wrote some of his most beautiful arias for this opera but forgot to put life in his characters.
 
I will not be returning to this production very often as a visual experience, even though for entertainment I might pick isolated scenes, but what redeems this performance is the singing. There isn’t a weak link in the cast, and all of them are good actors, who, as far as I can tell, obey the director’s intentions admirably, whether they like them or not.
 
Luca Pisaroni is an excellent Publio, lighter of voice than John Relyea on the Mackerras recording, but also steadier. As Servilia Barbara Bonney is as fresh voiced as ever and new superstar Elina Garanča, who recently signed an exclusive contract with DG, which probably implies that she is guaranteed a great future, is a perfect Annio, actually looking quite boyish. As has been pointed out more than once lately the mezzo-soprano department is exceptionally well populated at present and Garanča only confirms this. Vesselina Kasarova has been around for a number of years and has firmly established herself in the top layer. As Sesto she challenges all her competitors on competing versions, even the wonderful Magdalena Kožena on the Mackerras set. Parto, parto (Disc 1 track 21) has rarely, if ever, been so marvellously sung. Dorothea Röschmann sings and acts Vitellia with such intensity that she is on a par with Mackerras’s Hillevi Martinpelto and her lowest notes are even firmer. I have already mentioned Michael Schade’s assumption, visually, and his singing matches his acting. I admired Rainer Trost on the Mackerras, but Schade sings just as well and with a lighter voice and less strain. His florid singing (DVD 2 track 16) is also very apt.
 
I have a second La clemenza di Tito waiting in the wings – one which will probably be an antidote to this Salzburg version. With Arnold Östman at the helm, period instruments and costumes and filmed at the Drottningholm Court Theatre, contemporaneous with the music, it should be something special. The present Harnoncourt offering, in spite of my vacillating, has an integrity of its own and the singing is absolutely superb.
 
Göran Forsling

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