Mozart – La Clemenza di Tito / Metropolitan Opera 11-20-12

It was a little strange seeing this production again – I had a very distinct sense of having been in the room before. I had, of course. I saw it back around 2005 or so, and I’ve also seen Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s film of La Clemenza di Tito, to which this production, also designed by Ponnelle, bears a very strong resemblance.

Back in 2005 about the only parts of the opera I knew well were Sesto’s big numbers, and I distinctly recall being distracted enough trying to remember the plot that I think I missed out on some of the action. Some of my now favorite bits did not even register with me that first time. And now I can tell a “non piu di fiori” from a “deh, se piacer mi vuoi” at fifty paces, and I don’t even need the subtitles anymore! This little earworm has come a long way as far as opera goes. Or at least as far as this opera goes.

Anyway. It’s Ponnelle’s production. The scenery is a series of grubby, slightly chipped and worn-looking classical – well, they’re definitely classical, but I don’t know what you’d call them. They’re not really rooms, and a few resemble courtyards, but they aren’t really anything in particular. Basically, the action takes place in a series of areas with steps surrounded by columns and balconies. In Act I, when Berenice is walking away, and then runs back to Tito’s embrace, and then is pulled firmly away by the Roman guards and placed on the boat – while all this was afoot, I found myself thinking of the potato. I missed the potato in that moment. I missed it keenly and purely and from the depths of my soul. I suppose it’s characteristic of the typical Met opera production that while I enjoy the high quality of the singing very much, part of me is thinking PLEASE SOMEONE COME IN AND FUCK THIS SHIT UP A LITTLE. You know what I mean?

The overture felt a little lackluster, but as soon as Elina Garanča (Sesto) opened her mouth in Sesto and Vitellia’s first duet, things got going. Garanča was possibly the best thing in this. She’s got a lovely solid-sounding voice, and there are moments, like the first “sarò qual più ti piace” in “parto, parto,” or at “conservate o dei” in the recitative before the Act I finale, where it just seems to open up and fill the hall – it’s a beautiful sound. (Praise also goes to the clarinet player in “parto, parto”, whose phrasing was of a piece with Sesto’s wistful longing for Vitellia’s smile, and then later, moved into a very charming rippling accompaniment when the smile is given.) But it’s not just those moments of sound – it’s the phrasing too. The first lines of “deh, per questo istante solo” were pretty much perfect, and there was one long, drawn out phrase in the Act II Tito-Publio-Sesto trio that me wishing I could stop the opera and ask her to do that again.

Barbara Frittoli as Vitellia was good, but I was not on the edge of my seat. Partly I want to blame the production for this, because it doesn’t really allow Vitellia to be as interesting as she can be. But part of it is Frittoli’s performance – it sounded solidly good, and I enjoyed it, but I didn’t feel like I had any new insight into the music or the character afterward. (And, not to be one of “those people,” but we were missing a few of the top notes in the “vengo, aspettate, Sesto” trio and in one or two other places – but this is one of those things that if I didn’t know the score well, I would not have noticed. Interpretively, it’s not a big deal.)

Kate Lindsey as Annio had a really fine moment in “tu fosti tradito” in Act II – Lindsey gave it all it was worth dramatically, and got some very effective dynamic contrasts in there. I was also impressed with Lucy Crowe as Servilia. I really like Crowe’s voice, and she has this way of singing that’s sort of effortlessly expressive, but not at all in a scenery-chewing way. I’d be curious what she’d be like in a role with a little more dramatic weight. Finally, Giuseppe Filianoti (Tito) was definitely worth hearing. The recitative before that aforementioned Publio-Sesto-Tito trio in Act II really caught my attention, as did “se all’impera.”

I hadn’t heard this opera live in so long that I had forgotten how great the big choral moments sound in the hall – parts of the first Act I chorus (I noticed it at “giusto e forte”) seemed a little rushed, but that last “eterni dei” chorus in the Act II finale was kind of thrilling. This was true even though in general I would say the production took a little of the punch out of the opera in a dramatic sense. It’s not nearly as weird as Ponnelle’s film, and as performed here it’s not a production that plays up the opera’s ambiguities. If someone else had seen only this version of the opera, I would probably want to tell them that although this was a very well done performance (particularly Garanča), the opera is actually way more interesting than it seems here.

19 thoughts on “Mozart – La Clemenza di Tito / Metropolitan Opera 11-20-12

    1. The Met is definitely not potato country – their performances are high quality, but they seem to avoid anything that might frighten or confuse the audience.

      In some ways I liked the Ponnelle film better than the stage production – it’s weirder, in a good & interesting way.

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      1. I’m not a fan of the Ponnelle film but I agree it’s vastly superior to this in house rendition. I’m totally with you on the “someone come fuck this shit up” thing. It’s so “operatically correct” I want to cry. It even makes that Mackerras/Kozena/Martinpelto audio recording seem edgy. Add to that the fact that Garanca, Fritolli and Crowe constantly leave me cold, I feel like ffw-ing to the Tito and Annio bits and be done with it.

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        1. I couldn’t get into that Mackerras/Kozena/ etc. one either – glad I am not the only one. (I kept meaning to listen to it again a while back when I was on another Tito bender, but it never happened)

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          1. I read a lot of very positive reviews, some people really like that kind of well behaved Mozart. I remember Quello di Tito e il volto was very pleasant and Tardi s’avvede the most exciting moment!

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  1. I have a feast of Clemenza’s on deck. The Ponnelle DVD is on order at the library and I’m seeing the HD broadcast on Dec 1. Best of all I’ll be seeing Christopher Alden’s production at COC at least twice in the New Year (this is the “Romanes eunt domus” production from COT). The main cast is great; Schade, Leonard, Alkema, Asselin, Giunta, Gleadow, and I’ll also see the performance where our young artists get their annual outing on the main stage. I’m especially looking forward to Rihab Chaieb as Sesto.

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            1. That sounds kind of frightening. My first Latin teacher was small and mole-like . . . and then next semester we got the tall skinny sneering hip dude. Not Cleese-like, but memorable all the same.

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              1. Not especially frightening but very, very old fashioned. Possibly even by the standards of heads of houses at English Public Schools. He was vehemently opposed to the use of ballpoint pens which he referred to as “slime guns.” The scary one was my Latin teacher at prep school. He was younger but a Fascist with anger management problems. I once saw him trash a text book because it had a poem by Auden in it.

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  2. This set loves the chorus.
    And no potato, of course, but in my now-traditional role as apologist ad tedium for Met productions of the bronze age, I will point out this was their first production of this opera ever. And I have the feeling they’re HDing it so they can get rid of it, so not to worry.

    Filianoti doesn’t fare at all well via Sirius, so I’ll be interested to see if the HD is kinder to him.

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    1. It’s true, I’m glad they decided to stage it in the first place, and it’s not like the production interferes with the music in any way. (Would have been cool if the chorus had had those masks, though!)

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