Excellent Concert Version of La Clemenza in London

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Mozart: La clemenza di Tito K 621. Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie, DeutscheKammerchor, Soloists / Louis Langree (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 22.2.2012. (GD)

Michael Schade: Titus
Alice Coote: Sextus
Rosa Feola: Servilla
Malin Hartelius: Vitellia
Christina Daletska: Annius
Brindley Sherrat: Publius

For a long time it was argued that La clemenza di Tito represented a kind of regression in Mozart’s oeuvre  and viewed as little more than a museum curiosity and certainly not worthy of being classed as Mozart’s last opera, a place reserved for Die Zauberflöte.  It was seen as a re-vamping of the older operatic style of opera seria, which Mozart had deployed in earlier operas like Lucio Silla and Mitridate. But La clemenza di Tito actually departs from many of the older characterological formulas. Whereas opera seria tended to portray its characterisation through archetypes like rage, jealousy and compassion, Mozart’s music here corresponds more to the various characters’ ambiguity and complexity of emotion. Vengeance, an old theme in opera seria, is here portrayed as mutated, as also connected to the opposite emotion of respect or love. Also the opera is written in a relatively more simple style which can be seen as his ‘late’ style – the same style as the Clarinet Concerto and indeed Die Zauberflöte. The instrumentation here is not so complexly opulent as in Mozart’s most complete opera seria Idomeneo.

It is only relatively recently that La clemenza di Tito has been seen as the late masterpiece it certainly is. Rather than looking back it can be seen as the beginning of a new, more direct Mozartian operatic style – one he no doubt  would have developed had he lived. The opera was composed in 1791 while Mozart was at work on Die Zauberflöte as a commission from Prague for the Coronation of King Leopold II as King of Bohemia. Operas to do with enlightened and clement monarchs had been popular since the time of Antonio Caldara,  La Clemenza di Tito being set as an opera by no fewer than 40 composers. These allegorical settings of kind, benevolent monarchs were the musical equivalent of flattering visual portraits/paintings of ideal princes etc.  The idea of the actual Emperor Titus as a benevolent, clement ruler derives from a passage from the Roman historian Suetonius, where he is portrayed as being lenient on two patricians convicted of ‘aspiring to the Empire’. But this leniency in Roman Emperor’s was an old, usually carefully chosen strategy of giving the impression of largesse in order to gain extended popular consent. In reality the real Titus was one of the most bloodthirsty of Roman Emperors.; he had Jerusalem burned down, the population driven out and a hundred thousand Jews massacred. The original libretto written by Metastasio is loosely based around the Suetonius reference but beyond that, as with most eighteenth century librettos purporting to be based on historical events and characters, it is mostly fiction. The libretto for the opera was finally given to Caterino Mazzola who had recently been appointed Vienna’s court poet after the dismissal of Lorenzo da Ponte. Mazzola downsized Metastasio’s three acts to two acts, simplified the narrative, and cut around a third of the original text. There is little doubt that Mozart, in discussion with Mazzola, approved these cuts and changes.

The narrative of the opera basically revolves around the treachery and selfish and jealous  scheming of the Princess Vitellia against the Emperor, whom she has loved for the purpose of gaining the throne as his consort. But the Emperor is in love with ‘barbarian’ Berenice, daughter of King Agrippa of Judaea. Now Vitellia seeks vengeance against both Berenice and the Emperor, and inveigles Sextus to carry out her murderous plans. She knows that Sextus is infatuated with her both sexually and as a possible heir to the throne. The only problem here is that Sextus is the close friend and confidant of the Emperor. So he is confronted with a very difficult choice, he ponders and prevaricates, and finally succumbs to the erotic allure of the Princess. All of this jealousy, vengeance and lust for power is not unusual to the old opera seria form and indeed the tradition of Renaissance vengeance drama. What is different here is the focus on ambiguous, complex emotions, especially of Sextus, and the unexpected and agonised leniency or clemency of the Emperor.

So how did tonight’s performance live up to the complexities of Mozart’s last opera? The overture augured well with sharp precision and superb orchestral clarity in quasi-period style with natural horns, trumpets and period timpani. I was not entirely convinced by Langree’s abrupt pauses in the overture’s opening ceremonial D major chords, but the rest of the overture was most convincing. There was much shifting and relocation of both soloists and chorus tonight, as often happens in concert opera performances.; but why were the vocal soloists allowed to enter the stage with loud clunking footsteps on the wooden platform just after the development section of the overture? I, for one, found this an unecessary distraction.

Throughout the performance I found mezzo-soprano Alice Coote’s Sextus, impressive,  both in sustained vocality and actual characterisation. In the opening duet between Sextus and Vitellia ‘Come ti piace imponi’, where Vitellia inveighs upon Sextus to carry out her murderous plans and Sextus in despair pleads his conflict of emotions, it was apparent that Malin Hartelius’ Vitellia, although full of effective phrasing, didn’t quite have the vocal range demanded by this role. Highlights of Act One included Sesto’s great aria ‘Parto, parto’, where Sesto is being urged by Vitellia to make haste to meet the murderous deadline, and is also swearing his love for her. Coote phrased every turn wonderfully, though she did have a slight problem with one of her ascending coloraturas toward the end of the aria. However, overall this was most impressive singing.  This aria is often performed outside the opera in recitals etc., includes a wonderful basset clarinet obbligato commentary on the vocal line, and is a beautiful example of Mozart’s love of A major, particularly for the clarinet. It was first played by Anton  Stadler for whom Mozart wrote the Clarinet Concerto ,completed a month after the first performance of the opera.

Also notable was Tito’s sublime aria ‘Del piu sublime soglio’, eloquently intoned by tenor Michael Schade. This aria, in dramatic terms, corresponds to the deep tragic irony/complexity of the plot, initiating the confused mood as the finale approaches.  The Emperor, having been deserted by  Berenice now announces to Sesto that he has chosen Servilia, Sesto’s sister, as his bride. Initially Sesto protests that Servillia is already in love with Annio, Sesto’s friend. Annio, completely disregarding his own feelings, approves the marriage thus upgrading Servillia’s position regarding the throne. Servillia begs the Emperor to respect her love of   Annio, and the Emperor is so impressed by her candour that he immediately agrees to unite the couple in marriage, totally disregarding his own feelings.

Vitellia misreads Servillia’s joy thinking she must be anticipating marriage with Titus. Feeling again thwarted she seduces Sesto to immediately set Rome ablaze and kill the Emperor. But she then learns that the Emperor has now chosen her as his bride and finds herself in an acute dilemma. Now she is on the verge of the power she craves how is she going to stop Sesto carrying out her plan? The finale of Act One is one of Mozart’s most inspired operatic conceptions. The conspirators have already fired the Capitol. After an agonised accompanied recitative ‘Oh Dei, che smania e questo’ Sesto in a mood of deep remorse feels, amid the flames, he is now fated to kill the Emperor. The great finale in C minor ends in a total confusion of emotions: Sextus talks of confession, Vitellia violently orders him to hold his tongue, while the chorus ( the people of Rome) sing a great lament.The orchestra subtended by timpani and muted trumpets intone a funeral march interrupted by outcries and sudden sforzati.

Overall this sublime tragic finale, shot through with bitter irony, was managed well. Langree’s conducting here, as throughout the opera, tended to be quite swift. Perhaps a more steady tempo would have suited the funeral march in particular, but the orchestra could not be faulted here, intoning with such clarity. The chorus, which divided itself on each side of the hall effectively, was superb in terms of vocal range and dynamic contrast.

The two lovers Servillia and Annio, sung respectively by Rosa Feola and Christina Daletska, were vocally very impressive. Annio at the beginning of Act Two in his aria ‘Torna di Tito a lato’ advises the distressed Sesto, who has discovered that the Emperor is still alive and that he had killed another man he thought to be Tito, to stay by the Emperor’s side and prove his loyalty.  Mezzo-soprano Daletska, in another trouser role, shaped and contoured her aria with great understanding of the music and the character part she sung. And in the terzetto ‘Se al volto mai ti senti’, which tells of the mixed emotions at the arrest of Sesto, the sadness of Publius, commander of the Praetorian Guard, at having to arrest his friend but stoically accepting that sure death that awaits Sesto was sung with great sensitivity tonight by bass Brindey Sherrat.  In Sesto’s bitter farewell to Servilia, who is also saddened by his fate but  lacking the courage to admit her own guilt, there was a splendid vocal harmony, each voice  distinct but never obscuring the harmony of the whole. Again, I would have welcomed a slightly slower tempo from Langree, a tempo similar to that chosen by Sir Charles Mackerras, and Nikolaus Harnoncourt, in their rerspective recordings of the opera. Servillia’s aria, ‘S’ altro che lacrime per lui non tenti’ in which she questions the sincerity of Servilia’s tears, the music reflecting a kind of calm but sustained anger, was again given vocal sensitivity and spontaneity by Rosa Feola.

Vitellia’s  great aria, ‘Non piu di fiori’ in which she realises defeat and bids an anguished farewell to her ambitions was quite well sung by Malin Hartelius, but she was, at this stage showing some signs of  vocal strain. This unique aria, with elaborate embellishments from obbligato basset horn, really needs a singer like Julia Varady or Edith Mathis from an older generation of Mozart singers.  The monumental Chorus in Handelian style, ‘Che del ciel, che degli dei’ , in which the Roman people praise the gods for protecting the divine Titus as he enters the great Roman Amphitheatre was unduly rushed,I thought. The orchestra was again in fine form, but I missed the extra note of pomp and gravitas conductors like Mackerras, at a slightly slower tempo, brings to the music.

As I have aleady mentioned Michael Schade’s Titus was most eloquent and sustained a vivid characterisation of the Emperor both vocally and affectively. Here in a concert performance Schade’s acting with the voice mostly paid off.  His aria, ‘Se all’ impero, amici Dei’ where he renounces severity in favour of clemency towards his friends, had just the right sense of anguish mixed with resolution. Titus, when he initially learns of the treachery and betrayel done towards him, is both angry and confused, almost going into denial. But in tonight’s rendition Schade remained angry and petulant, with much stamping, angry grunting and storming off. His recitative, ‘Ma che giorno e’ mai qesto’, where he praises clemency and pardons not only Sextus but also all the other conspirators, was shot through with anger.  I can see the point of this prolonged anger as corresponding more with reality, but in historical reality had they all so blatantly betrayed the Emperor, their heads would have been on the floor. It just didn’t work in terms of the idealised Titus of the opera who emulates a calm, serene beneficence.  It is in the opera’s final sextet and chorus, ‘Tu,e’ver, m’ assolvi, Augusto’ in which  all join in praise of the Emperor, where we have the feeling of Titus alone, probably agonised by  guilt – a guilt in which he feels responsible for the actions of others -all subtly hinted at throughout the opera. This is, in fact , a very Mozartian operatic coda where jubilation and  rejoicing are subtended by darker forces.

Finally I must make mention of the opera’s recitatives which have until quite recently been a contentious issue. Mozart, shortly after arriving in Prague to direct the opera, fell ill. He was forced to entrust composition of  the normal, or secco,  recitatives to his assistant and copyist Franz Xavier Süssmayr, although this did not include the accompanied recitatives. Compared with, say, the da Ponte operas the secco recitatives here sound slightly rushed, but there is no evidence that Mozart had any immediate intention of recomposing them.  Tonight I felt this to be a minor issue, in no way detracting from the general excellence of the performance. And Raphael Alpermann’s deft and well contrasted fortepiano playing more than compensated for any lack here.

Geoff Diggines