I bought this on a whim, because the idea of Janet Baker as Vitellia was too intriguing to pass up. Also because in every other performance I’ve heard of this, Vitellia is sung by a soprano rather than a mezzo and I figured the recording might be interesting for that reason too. As it turns out, this recording is interesting for many reasons.
This is some old school Mozart. There’s a kind of large-scale deliberateness about it – the overture is big and almost leisurely at times. Davis and the ROH orchestra don’t go for ‘bite’ in the same way many modern ensembles do.
And there are some odd stylistic touches. Stuart Burrows as Tito sounds as if he’s singing a nineteenth-century Italian opera role. Burrows isn’t Italian (he is — I checked — Welsh). It’s something about the style of the phrasing and the general emotional pitch of the performance. I am not against Tito sounding like he dropped in out of a Donizetti opera. I do not object to it in any a priori kind of way – it just takes a little getting used to. On the other hand, as you would expect if we are talking Donizetti, Burrows definitely has those fast runs in “se all’impero.”
Sesto in this instance is Yvonne Minton. She starts out a little gentler than she needs to be – in that first scene, Baker sounds like she could crush Minton like a bug, in vocal terms. In general, I would say that ‘gentle’ is the watchword for this portrayal of Sesto. This is not a wrong way to approach the character. Sesto’s gentleness is in a way his undoing, if you think about it. And Minton does give Sesto some punch – I thought the best part of that performance was “O dei, che smania è questa” toward the end of Act I. It’s not a portrayal that is really detailed in dramatic terms (and at times, as in bits of “deh per questo instante” I lost the thread of the phrasing) but Minton consistently sounds very nice.
I will admit that the reason I was excited about Baker as Vitellia is that I suspected this was going to be a sort of “I will crush you, minion” Vitellia. And it is. It’s kind of awesome. In the recitatives Baker sometimes sounds as if she is reading lines rather than acting as she sings – one of the things that struck me in that opening scene was that the syllables all seem to have the same length and weight. When the recitative turns to an aria or duet, each syllable is grand, massive and precise (see “prima che il sol tramonte” in “come ti piace imponi”). There is a feel of placement to this. And often some very nice little turns of musical phrase as in the repeated “alleta”s in “deh, se piacer me voi.”
I can certainly see the argument for a mezzo Vitellia. I guess the concern would be making sure that Vitellia and Sesto are distinct enough in sound, but that’s not an issue here with Baker and Minton. And Baker’s certainly got those low notes for “non più di fiori.” On the other hand, you do get the trouble you might think at the upper end of the range – Baker sounds a little stretched now and then during “vengo – aspettate – Sesto!” and she skips that high D entirely. But I found that I didn’t care all that much about that. Baker’s voice is a pleasure to listen to and the style of the performance was unfamiliar in a fun way and honestly, I am not going to start breaking heads because someone skips a note that is a little out of their fach.
And there was one other thing about this that leapt out at me. This is going to sound like a bizarre picky kind of thing, but they got the track division at the end of “non più di fiori” just right. Sometimes (I’ve noticed this on at least one DVD) the beginning of the triumphal march that begins that final scene is cut off from the end of Vitellia’s aria. In this case, it’s the same track. Obviously this doesn’t matter if you’re just listening to it – who cares where the track division is? But the track division tracks an interpretive point which is worth noting.
It seems kind of odd, when you first see this opera performed, that there is no point right after “non più di fiori” where the music can take a breath and the audience can applaud. They can burst in, and they do sometimes, but there’s not a natural pause in the music. And that’s because that aria is perfect when the music just rolls forward into that last scene. We have Vitellia’s tortured moment of self-consciousness and horror and then we have that massive final scene. Vitellia’s had her moment – but it does not matter, and that makes it all the more poignant. (They nail this in everyone’s favorite Salzburg version: Vitellia is miserable, gray and sticky, but they toss that wedding veil right on over her head, and Tito touches her face familiarly as if to indicate that gray paint or no, the show is going to go on: her personal moment of self-knowledge ultimately doesn’t do much in terms of the big picture.)
So. Big picture. (This opera really is about the big picture versus the personal, isn’t it? I mean, a lot of operas are, but this one really tortures pretty much everyone with the tension between the great matters of empire and the personal.) The orchestral playing is expressive (e.g those nervous violins in “vengo – aspettate”) and the harpsichord continuo is great in terms of expression and phrasing and interaction with the singers.
The vocal performances are fairly reserved as far as characterization is concerned. Minton shows us Sesto getting his act together and being a little more assertive as Act I goes on, and Baker’s Vitellia sounds strikingly gentle as she goes into that last aria, in contrast to her attitude in the beginning, but it’s not one of those performances that really smacks you over the head with the dramatic arc. And there are several points, as noted, where I lost the thread of the phrasing or the tempo. Along similar lines, the big reveal of Vitellia’s responsibility in the last scene seemed to go by very quickly. So. This is a performance that in some ways doesn’t quite get at how strange and disturbing some aspects of this opera are. But it’s high quality in musical terms – and worth hearing precisely because of some of the things about it that might seem dated.