(Previous section here.)
I said earlier that one of the reasons this performance works so well dramatically is that the interpretations of the three central roles fit together so well. We have a mad emperor, a Vitellia who is on the edge of we know not what and/or tearing off her clothes most of the time — and then there is Sesto (Vesselina Kasarova) who seems to be the only sane person in the room.
With Sesto, Kasarova has done it again in terms of characterization. Sesto comes across as the consistently most self-aware person in this story, in that he is both doing the wrong thing and aware that he’s doing the wrong thing. Sesto is deeply attached to Vitellia and also fully conscious that she is a bit of a loose cannon in both political and emotional terms. No one can be entirely sure what this woman is going to do next. And yet Sesto can’t back away. The parts of Kasarova’s performance that I enjoyed the most were the moments when she colors a phrase, often just a little one, just perfectly to express Sesto’s wistfulness or ambivalence or sadness. The “ingrata, addio” in “partir deggio o restar,” for example, where from listening alone you get a sense that Sesto wishes that Vitellia didn’t have to be quite what she is. At the same time, there is a lovely tenderness to it as well.
And this is one of the interesting things about Sesto. There is wistfulness, and ambivalence, and sadness, and resignation, as in “deh, per questo istante solo” where you get a wonderful impression of Sesto’s awareness that he is reaching for something that is no longer there. But you rarely get anything approaching anger, and even when Sesto has a knife in his hand it’s not because he wants to hurt anyone. Sesto can pull himself together and make decisions, but he is also resigned to the likelihood of unpleasant consequences. It’s not exactly weakness — I certainly wouldn’t call it that — but rather a kind of awareness that trying too hard to halt what is unfolding will do no good. And he doesn’t necessarily want to halt it, at least not all of it all of the time.
This may or may not be connected in any direct way to the general feel of this production, but Harnoncourt’s tempos in this performance often seem slow to me. Not all the time, but often enough that I noticed. And not always problematically so – in “parto, parto” for example, there are places where the clarinet line hangs in the air in a way I really like. Sometimes the slowness was puzzling, as with the entry march after “non più di fiori.” But often what the slow tempo allows for is some wonderfully clear articulation of the music. I noticed this in the Act I duet for Annio (Elina Garanča) and Servilia (Barbara Bonney), where you can hear each movement of the harmony between the two vocal parts and every detail of the orchestration. The same is true in Sesto and Vitellia’s first duet, which contains one of my favorite little sections of this opera – it begins in bars 13-14, right at Vitellia’s “prima che il sol tramonti” where the strings leap into repeated eighth notes. I don’t know why I like it so much. But I do.
Anyway. This whole performance works well both musically and dramatically. There is sort of an interesting sanity gradient in this production, isn’t there? We have Tito, who has power, Vitellia who wants it, Sesto who is willing to help, and then the two most stable people on the stage, Annio and Servilia, who would really rather just get married. (I enjoyed Garanča’s Annio very much. There is the impression, for example in “tu fosti tradito” of a real solidness to this character. This is very much the sturdy and morally pure best friend. And Garanča sounds great.) There is also Publio. Luca Pisaroni wrings all he can get out of this part and manages to make Publio somewhere between vaguely creepy (see video above) and almost sympathetic. The emotional pitch of “tardi, s’avvedi” suggests something along the lines of “Publio has a great personal tragedy in his past, or perhaps even in his present, but we’re never going to hear anything about it because that is not what this opera is about.” (Wouldn’t it be great if someone did a “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” version of La Clemenza di Tito?)
But there is this connection between madness and power that seems to sort of hang over the whole story. I mean, does Vitellia actually want what Tito has? And given the mood and feel of this production, one wonders a little bit about Sesto’s professions in the opening scene about how wonderful Tito is. One gets the sense that perhaps the sanest character in this whole operation is Berenice, who has gotten the hell out of Dodge with such expedition that she never even appears on the stage.
I suppose that if one were going to make a criticism of this production, it would be this. The core of it — Tito, Sesto and Vitellia — makes sense. And in general, the concept makes sense. But there are enough little things in it that don’t quite make sense that the production as a whole doesn’t pack the punch it ideally might. Or, rather, there are little things that can be made to make sense individually (the chorus as tourists, the cannibalism, whatever is going on with Publio) but they don’t all make the same sense, if you know what I mean. I can make an argument for the tourists, and I can also make an argument for the cannibalism. But they don’t quite feel like pieces of a single whole.