Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756 – 1791) La clemenza di Tito K621 (1791)
Tito Vespasiano, Roman emperor – Rolando Villazón (tenor)
Sesto, Friend of Titus – Joyce DiDonato (mezzo-soprano)
Vitellia, Daughter of the emperor Vitellius – Marina Rebeka (soprano)
Servilia, Sister of Sesto, Annius’s sweetheart – Regula Mühlemann (soprano)
Annio, Friend of Sesto, Servilia’s lover – Tara Erraught (mezzo-soprano)
Publio, Commander of the Praetorian Guards – Adam Plachetka (bass)
RIAS Kammerchor, Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Yannick Nézet-Séguin
rec. live at Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, July 2017
Libretto with English, German and French translations DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 483 5210 [69:09 + 71:31]
La clemenza di Tito was a rush job that Mozart was commissioned to squeeze in, while he was busy composing Die Zauberflöte. A new Emperor of Austria had to be crowned King of Bavaria, and in September 1791 that was going to happen with Leopold II. The Bavarian authorities wanted to perform a new opera during the festivities in Prague and Mozart was asked in July. He reserved 18 days for the task and managed to finish it in time. He was offered an old libretto by Metastasio from 1734, set by some forty composers before him, including Gluck in 1752, but the court poet Caterino Mazzolà edited it and “reworked it into a true opera”. It is a long opera with overture and 26 musical numbers, plus some accompanied recitatives and lots of secco recitatives, the latter allegedly not by Mozart. Probably his pupil Süssmayr, who later completed the Requiem, provided them, since he accompanied Mozart to Prague. There is no evidence of the Emperor’s reaction to the new work, but it was performed in Vienna and other places well into the 19th century, but then it disappeared for many years. The reason for that is obvious. La clemenza di Tito was written in the by then obsolete opera seria style with a number of arias tied together with recitatives and a plot from ancient Roman history. By all means Mazzolà’s revision contained several duets and ensembles and Mozart lavished some wonderful music on the libretto, but posterity thought it was old-fashioned after the masterworks of the 1780s. It was not until after WW2 that it began to appear again and the first complete studio recording dates from as late as 1967. There may have been some live recordings from earlier than that and I have a studio recording from what is today WDR in Cologne, made in 1955 with Nicolai Gedda in the title role (review). Today the catalogue is well-supplied with recordings of La clemenza di Tito and many connoisseurs maintain that a lot of the music is on a level with the best from his better-known operas. One only has to listen to Sesto’s aria Parto, ma tu, ben mio from the first act, or Vitellia’s rondo Non più di fiori from the second act to wholeheartedly agree – if they are well executed, of course, and they certainly are in this new recording.
The previous four issues in Canadian Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s Mozart cycle for Deutsche Grammophon have had somewhat mixed receptions, but generally speaking they have fared reasonably well in an admittedly competitive field. I found a lot to admire in Le nozze di Figaro (review). After Die Entführung aus dem Serail and the three Da Ponte operas he now leaves the buffo repertoire behind, at least temporarily, and indulges in the serious world of Roman Emperor Tito Vespasiano and the intrigues surrounding him. It seems that he is even better suited for this, shall we say, more contemplative work, more like an oratorio. There are some dramatic scenes and also some festive music, suitable for the coronation festivities, but mostly this is a work one can gladly listen to without bothering too much about the plot. Besides the two arias mentioned above there is a lot of attractive music but not everything is on the same level of inspiration. Everything is professionally written – Mozart like Verdi for instance was unable to compose a dull piece – but had he been granted some more time he might have written even more inspired music. Utterly professional is also Nézet-Séguin’s conducting and the playing of the excellent Chamber Orchestra of Europe. The choices of tempo is always crucial in Mozart’s operas and in that respect Nézet-Séguin is very reliable. I have sampled some numbers – the overture and a handful of arias – for comparison in the recordings by Colin Davis (Philips/Decca) and Charles Mackerras (DG). Both are well-reputed Mozarteans, their timings differ only marginally from each other and Nézet-Séguin follows them closely.
As for the singing it is also on an elevated level. Only in a couple of cases I have some mild misgivings. Joyce DiDonato seldom puts her foot wrong these days and her Sesto is superb in every respect. She is dramatically expressive in recitatives, her tone is glowingly beautiful, her coloratura is ravishing and she has a perfect trill. Latvian Marina Rebeka, who has had a meteoric career since her breakthrough at the Salzburg Festival in 2009, is a superb Vitellia, and both her arias, Deh, se piacer mi vuoi (CD 1 tr. 5) and Non più di fiori vaghe catene (CD 2 tr. 22), are highlights. In the latter, the one with the obbilgato bassethorn, she negotiates the wide range wonderfully, even though her lowest notes, down in the basement, are slightly weak. On the other hand she has to toss of a high D in the terzetto Vengo, aspettate, Sesto (CD 1 tr. 22) which she does with aplomb – it sails effortlessly up in the attic. The tessitura is actually uncommonly low for a soprano and on Colin Davis’s recording the role is taken by mezzo-soprano Janet Baker. Young Swiss soprano Regula Mühlemann, who was a cute and innocent Barbarina on the Figaro recording, has here Servilia on her lot and sings the beautiful aria S’altro che lagrime (CD 2 tr. 20) with fresh youthful timbre. She sings the same aria on her Mozart recital, issued a couple of years ago, and the disc is highly recommended, not least for the inclusion of several rarely heard arias. Servilia’s lover, Annio, is here sung by Irish mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught, who also has a spectacular international career. She has two arias (CD 2 tr. 2 & tr. 11) and she also radiates the same youthful freshness. We are indeed lucky to have so many great young Mozart singers around at the moment, and here they join forces on the same recording.
Publio is a relatively small role and though he appears in several ensembles he is only allotted a short aria (CD 2 tr. 8) which is over before it has hardly begun. I have admired Czech bass-baritone Adam Plachetka in a couple of recitals (review) (review), but here he sounds curiously detached and anonymous. Tito, on the other hand, is the central character and he is sung by Rolando Villazon, who is also the master-mind behind this whole project. His personality is very tangible, he sings with face and elegance. Maybe his timbre isn’t very Mozartean, maybe the tone is at times a bit pinched, but by and large this is a convincing reading of the title role.
The recording, made live at concert performances at Festspielhaus Baden-Baden in July 2017, is exemplary. There is no applause, no disturbing extra-musical noises and the recorded balance is excellent. The 124-page booklet, has an essay on the project and a synopsis in three languages and the full libretto with translations in three languages. Add to this several photos from the rehearsals and a couple from the actual performances, and this must be judged as a classy documentation of the kind we took for granted thirty or forty years ago, during the LP-era. The print is, for obvious reasons, miniscule, but luckily fully readable, thanks to the clever decision to print the text in black on white. Some fanciful layout designers from other companies should learn from this.
The profusion, nowadays, of recordings of La clemenza di Tito, makes it difficult to select a downright first choice. My long-standing personal favourite is the Colin Davis (1976), mentioned above, but I also have soft spot for Charles Mackerras (2005) (review) – also mentioned above. From more recent times Jérémie Rhorer (Alpha) (2017) (review) is an attractive proposition and, for those with an interest in something quite different, Alessandro De Marchi (CPO) (2017) (review). It is based on a production in Vienna in 1804, where all the arias for Tito have been replaced by then newly written arias by Joseph Weigl and Johann Simon Mayr. I wonder what Mozart would have liked the idea, and I really wonder how his widow Constanze reacted. By then she had already met the Danish diplomat Georg Nikolaus von Nissen, whom she eventually married and moved to Copenhagen, but in 1804 she was still in Vienna, I believe.
If you are a newcomer to La clemenza di Tito, you can with confidence buy Nézet-Séguin’s set. If you are a jaded collector and own Davis, Mackerras, maybe also Kertesz and Karl Böhm, you should at least give this new set a listen and enjoy the singing of a quartet of female singers that are the equals of and maybe surpass many of the singers on older sets. How you will react to Villazon’s reading of the title role is possibly more questionable, but the sum of the achievements is certainly highly attractive.
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