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.