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The Vocal Retrospective
April 2021

Ralph Moore Mike Parr

A series of monthly musings by two members of the MusicWeb International review team who share a deep fascination with opera and vocal music in general. Each month we shall take a glance back at something of interest that appeared on commercial CD from the accumulated history of classical vocal recordings.

Trial of the Titos
A comparison of two recordings of Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito

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Ralph: I don’t think that La clemenza di Tito is the equal of Mozart’s greatest opera but it was long scorned and undervalued as a dull and retrograde opera seria until its gradual 20C post-war rehabilitation. It contains so much grand, stately and also tender music, and when it is as well sung and vocally acted as it is here it emerges as dramatically convincing, too.

Mike, I was really surprised when you said that the Davis recording was not among your favourites, as I have always prized it above all others, particularly for Janet Baker’s scintillating Vitellia – and the rest of the cast is stellar, too. If I want to demonstrate Dame Janet’s range, versatility and ability to generate vocal excitement, I just play “Vengo…aspettate…Sesto!” with its ringing top Bs and you could hardly assemble a more impressive trio of mezzo-sopranos than she with Von Stade and Minton.

Mike: Yes I probably have undervalued it over the years but there are a couple of reasons that it doesn’t completely “speak” to me when I want to listen to this really involving opera.

Ralph: There are other recordings but several are for me ruled out by weak tenors singing Tito. However, this Muti recording has the excellent Gösta Winbergh – hard to believe that his premature death occurred almost twenty years ago – and there was never anything weak about his sweet, lyrical tenor; he was a Mozart specialist, too.

Mike: Winbergh is one of the great assets of the Muti recording. His tone is forward and incisive. I think he builds the character beautifully in front of our ears. Stuart Burrows’ Tito is every inch a Mozart stylist. I could never deny that this is simply gorgeous vocalizing in every way, but he is one of the reasons I have liked the Davis less. I think Tito requires a slightly less beautiful voice to bring out interest in his character. Technically they are both stellar but Winbergh’s character is just that much more involving as the troubled ruler.

Ralph: Winbergh hasn’t the same gentle, plangent tone as Burrows but nor is he effete; in fact, he is almost strident in his first big aria compared with how Burrow caresses the music but he is singing out on stage rather than in a studio and he still applies some nice mezza voce. I still find Burrows more apt and convincing as the mild, merciful and magnanimous Tito but there is no denying that Winbergh sings beautifully. He manages his bravura aria “Se all’impero” with aplomb but to my ears his tenor does not have the intrinsic allure of Stuart Burrows’; nor do I think the recording quality enhances his timbre.

Mike: The studio sound of Philips is preferable in every way, however despite some stage noises and applause interfering the EMI is a perfect representation of an evening spent in Salzburg’s historic riding school auditorium.
Ralph: The orchestral sound is full and vital, but the live recording means that everything sounds rather distanced, as if we, the listeners, are in the balcony of the opera house, That’s not such a bad thing but it makes listening to this recording a very different experience from the Davis studio recording. There are more cuts in the recitative here than in Davis’s studio recording but that doesn’t much matter. Muti is typically incisive and propulsive in his direction, despite the rather thick orchestral textures; Davis finds more lightness and transparency.

Mike: Davis is thoroughly professional in his conducting and he reveals beauties in the score that Muti doesn’t. Muti has a passionate intensity that charges right through the opera. Just one example is the orchestral music that accompanies the scene change after “Non piu di fiori” which leads directly into a final chorus of nearly unbearable momentum. In this same passage, I find Davis to be stately but less involving.

Ralph: For Muti we immediately hear two fine voices in Vaness and Ziegler. Ziegler is impressive, bringing a slightly forced but trenchant lower register into play, but I still find that Minton has a better integrated voice and is more affecting in Sesto’s big aria “Parto”. Their first brief duet, “Fan mille affetti insieme”, is really exciting; how refreshing it is to hear two sizeable voices going for broke in Mozart instead of treating it like breakable Dresden china. Martha Senn as Annio is perfectly acceptable but rather anonymous - Frederica Von Stade she ain’t, any more than Christine Barbaux as Servilia is the equal of Lucia Popp.

Mike: Minton is a Sesto of real distinction. I really enjoyed reacquainting myself with her beautiful, passionate portrayal but Ziegler’s Sesto is likely the best recording she made. I love her singing but I am forced to admit that I don’t find her basic sound catches in my memory as Tatiana Troyanos and Teresa Berganza do on other recordings. She does not achieve what Minton does, but I also don’t find her to be in any way disappointing. Von Stade’s plaintive Annio and Popp’s alabaster toned Servilia are both treasures to be sure. Senn and Barbaux are merely solidly reliable in comparison.

Ralph: Although I am a great admirer of Vaness’ vibrant soprano, I miss the velvety heft of voice that Janet Baker brings to the role. Vaness sings Vitellia’s first big aria with firm, round tone and receives deserved applause. She has such a lovely voice with the kind of on-the-edge power on top notes to make any operaphile prick up his or her ears – and while she might not have the dark quality Janet Baker commands, her lower register is a joy – full, resonant low Bs – and she has a ringing top B to match Baker’s; I could listen to her sing all day. She is also equally adept in the coloratura. Whether she is quite Baker’s match in the thrilling “Vengo…aspettate” is questionable but she plays her part and what is the best music in the opera certainly makes its impact, even if her two supporting singers are a bit bland.

Mike: Yes they are almost polar opposites and present two very different Vitellia’s. I think of it as Vaness gives a performance but Baker gives a living breathing human being. Her rounder, more insinuating tone is uniquely suited to laying bare Vitellia’s often unattractive emotional journey. Time and again throughout the opera she reveals so much that I have to sit and listen with my lower jaw wide open. Against that it must be noted that she alters the vocal line of the last few bars of “Vengo...aspettate” to fit her range. This is not serious by any means but any singer doing that today would be all but crucified for doing so. Vaness has all of the vocal armour to sing Vitellia splendidly in a more external but glamorous personification. Her oboe-like tone thrills me to the core, especially in her vital chest voice and powerful top. We would be incredibly lucky to hear either one of them sing “Non piu di fiori”.

Ralph: Muti’s chorus is a bit mushy and László Polgár is nasal and woolly - not a patch on the young Robert Lloyd – but he doesn’t make a bad job of his Act 2 aria “Tardi s’avvede”.

Mike: I have always liked László Polgár in anything I have heard him do. He has a warmth to his tone that appeals to me but you are right about Robert Lloyd, his Publius is generally the better of the two.

Ralph: The extended quintet which concludes Act 1, Muti lacks the precision Davis achieves in the studio and is hindered by the boomy, rustling sound inherent in a recording of a staged production – and Davis’ voices are simply bigger and better for conveying the crisis of the moment. The No. 18 Terzetto in Muti’s recording produces a much better effect, where Ziegler is especially effulgent of voice.

Mike: I found Zeigler to be at her best in the concluding quintet of Act 1, also the Rondo aria in Act 2. Still, despite Muti’s superior feeling of urgency at the end of Act 1, overall, the Davis recording gives the better impression.

My Review of Davis:

One might cavil at the fact that it we hear three quite similar mezzo-sopranos - castrati being unavailable and it being too early to permit the casting of a counter-tenor as Sesto - but they are differentiated by timbre and characterisation and just happen to be three of the most beautiful voices of the era in Janet Baker, Yvonne Minton and Frederica Von Stade. Vitellia is supposedly a soprano role, in any case but Baker is here still in her vocal prime with a thrilling upper extension and thus able to encompass the tessitura, the scintillating coloratura and both the venom and regality to bring Vitellia alive as the wronged princess who believes that she is to be passed over. She sings with real vocal fire; when I compared her with Diana Damrau's version in her Mozart recital album, it was very much to the latter's disadvantage. Yvonne Minton could sometimes be a rather cool, aristocratic artist but as Sesto she comes across as desperate but still in plangent, equally resplendent voice. Von Stade is youthful and touching in the supporting, minor role of Annio - how I love her voice with its flickering vibrato and intrinsically beautiful tone.

As if all this were not enough, we are treated to a sonorous, sturdy Publio from Robert Lloyd, a silvery Servilia from Lucia Popp and, finally, a noble and touching, smoothly vocalised Tito from Stuart Burrows. His mildness and sweetness of tone are not out of place in his depiction of the clement Emperor.

Colin Davis brings lithe, taut direction to the score; nothing drags and the Royal Opera House Orchestra and Chorus respond alertly and energetically. Obviously this is no period performance but there is absolutely nothing stodgy in its tempi or overblown in its textures.

Most people will not want more than one recording of this opera in their collection and will initially make a selection of either a HIP version or an earlier, more traditional performance. With singing and playing this good and given that I have no special attachment to supposed historically informed practice per se, this set is my first choice.

Ralph: There is no question in my mind but that both Baker and Vaness dominate their recordings with superlative singing and both conductors oversee taut, invigorating performances. I certainly enjoy both but Davis has the advantage of a superior ensemble and better studio sound.

Mike: Hearing the Davis again after so many years I am forced to admit I have not given it the admiration it really deserves and it is the preferable recording of the two. The wonderful engineering reveals so much more of the score. The recitatives especially gain a great deal in the Philips recording, yet, there is so much that is thrilling about the admittedly less than ideal recording for Muti that I would never want to be without it on my shelves. I believe Titus himself would be forgiving enough to allow me to retain and value both of them.

Colin Davis – 1976 (studio, stereo) Philips
Orchestra - Covent Garden
Chorus - Covent Garden
Tito - Stuart Burrows
Sesto - Yvonne Minton
Servilia - Lucia Popp
Vitellia - Janet Baker
Annio - Frederica Von Stade
Publio - Robert Lloyd

This recording is unavailable at present for Digital Downloads. Streaming is available from various sites such as Naxos Music Library or Spotify

Riccardo Muti – 1988 (live; digital) EMI
Orchestra - Wiener Philharmoniker
Chorus - Wiener Staatsoper
Tito - Gösta Winbergh
Sesto - Delores Ziegler
Servilia - Christine Barbaux
Vitellia - Carol Vaness
Annio - Martha Senn
Publio - László Polgár

This recording is unavailable at present for Digital Download or Streaming. CDs are still obtainable on the resale market.

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