(Previous section here.)
I did something a little different this time. A while back, I ripped the audio from this DVD so that I could put it on my iPod. So, rather than watching the DVD over again to write this, I merely listened to it. There isn’t anything distracting about the way this is staged or anything like that, but sometimes a change of approach is worthwhile.
The first sound that one hears, before the overture begins, is the sound of a phone being dialed. This is Tito calling — who? I guess he’s calling ‘out’ but as noted earlier there is not much in the way of ‘out’ in this production. No one answers Tito’s call. And this sets the mood for the rest of the story. Michael Schade’s Tito is not the kindly but put-upon emperor we sometimes see. He’s twitchy, tormented, and occasionally frightening. Tito is a man at the end of his tether. He is trapped in this claustrophobic, many-leveled place described earlier. During the first chorus in Act I the chorus are dressed like tourists, and they wander into his room to gawp at him before being dismissed. What it means to be ’emperor’ in such a situation is an open question.
Schade does some wonderful things in terms of the characterization with abrupt changes in volume, e.g. when he dismisses the chorus the scene mentioned just now, and at least one point later on a phrase is less sung than snarled. What I enjoyed about this on listening it to again was the contrast between Schade’s tone, which is an utter pleasure to listen to, and what I remembered of the staging – it’s this contrast of beautiful sound and frightening context that really makes it work for me. “Del più sublime soglio” is a good example of this, but it’s consistent through the whole thing.
I’m not sure whether you would call Tito ‘mad’ — but there is certainly a kind of fracture between whatever he is experiencing and the rest of the world. It’s as if Tito and everyone else are running at slightly different speeds. Whether the idea is that Tito’s madness has infused Rome, or whether it’s that Rome is such a place that someone in Tito’s position will inevitably end up in this state I’m not sure. Maybe both.
Which brings me to one of the main reasons I think this entire performance works so well dramatically. The versions of the three main characters — Tito, Sesto and Vitellia — that we get here fit together perfectly.
The connection I mentioned between power and inhabiting a mental space that does not always track with the exterior world appears again with Dorothea Röschmann’s Vitellia. Röschmann’s Vitellia is not crazy. But she is supremely fixated on one thing – power and/or revenge. This is one of the least self-conscious Vitellias I have seen. She’s a manipulator, of course. Röschmann’s phrasing in “deh se piacer mi vuoi,” or in the various recitatives where she’s talking to Sesto, reveals exactly what Vitellia is doing and how she is doing it – it’s terrific. But despite the manipulation and the sarcasm and the general vampiness (the collection of interesting undergarments that Vitellia seems to own is very impressive) there is an unsettling fixity of purpose that seems to bring with it a complete lack of interest in whatever is not part of her immediate line of thinking. And over the course of the opera, we see Vitellia’s purpose waver and then collapse. During “vengo . . .aspettate . . .Sesto” she is merely panicked; by “se al volto mai ti senti” she is sort of stunned, and Röschmann’s “non più di fiori” makes utter emotional sense as the culmination of all that has happened previously.
What I like about this is that because this Vitellia is not supremely self-conscious to begin with, the horrifying moment in which she sees herself as she really is in this aria is all the more compelling. During the first section of the aria (we won’t discuss the famous dash down the stairs during the recitative – although I will admit to being impressed at how well Röschmann carries that off, in terms of breathing) the emotion just pours off of her. It’s somewhere between pain and despair, and for a while it’s purely outward-directed. Vitellia has reached her limit as far as control goes. It’s as the aria moves on that she has the moments of self-scrutiny. At each repetition of “chi vedesse il mio dolore” / “whoever saw my sorrow” her sense of horror at herself seems to grow stronger – the moment of reflection is more sustained. There is an emotional progression over the course of the aria that is really compelling. And of course, I think Röschmann sounds beautiful.
So. This brings us to Vesselina Kasarova’s Sesto, but there is enough to say about that that it can wait for another day.