I watched a slightly old (1991) and somewhat bizarre production of La Clemenza di Tito a while back. It’s one of those ones where I’m not sure it’s odd because it’s twenty years old or odd because it’s odd. Probably a combination of the two. Anyway, I watched it because I was told that Ashley Putnam’s Vitellia was worth hearing, and this turns out to be true.
There are different flavors of Vitellia, if you will. There is the vamping, stalking, dress-tearing and ultimately having-a-meltdown sort of Vitellia, of which I am a great fan, and then there is the snarky, bitchy, ironic-detachment sort of Vitellia, which I also like, although not as much. Putnam’s is of the second variety. I figured apples to apples is better than apples to oranges, so Vitellia number one is Putnam, and Vitellia number two is Catherine Naglestad, who plays it in a similar style, but not identically. “Ecco il punto . . . . non piu di fiori” in both cases. (For anyone who 1) cares but 2) doesn’t know the story, which I imagine is approximately zero people, this is the part of the opera where Vitellia is betrothed to the emperor Tito who her lover Sesto, at her instigation, tried to depose; she believes that Sesto is going to go to his death for her, without revealing her complicity, and, well, the lady is not made of stone, after all . . . )
Putnam’s Vitellia is excruciatingly self-conscious. Vitellia is, I mean, not Putnam. The constant shifting eyes and self-enclosing gestures emphasize it, and the part to watch is “chi vedesse il mio dolore” / “anyone who saw my sorrow” – Vitellia gives the impression that she thinks she is being watched, or she has grown so used to watching herself that she can’t tell the difference. The tempo is quite slow throughout – this is Vitellia looking at herself in the mirror, as it were, and seeing death. Putnam has a voice of marginally better quality than Naglestad’s, and she’s definitely got those low notes, even the G (I think it’s a G, anyway), towards the end.
Naglestad’s voice has at times what I would call a kind of clarinetty-type nasal sound, particularly at the bottom. (That G below middle C is just. barely. there.) However. That is not the end of the story here. The first section of ‘non piu di fiore’ is wonderfully phrased. It lilts and floats and touches down right where it should (see “discenda Imene ad intrecciar” at 4.38) – this is Vitellia’s own detachment in musical form, and it’s perfect. The drops to piano are really pretty exquisite, e.g. at 7.59. This is Vitellia performing her own regret, and being aware of performing it, and yet feeling it anyhow, with a certain amount of self-indulgent self-pity (“chi vedesse” at 7.30) that is entirely appropriate to the character. The guy in the audience who yells “brava!” at the end? Yes.