This production of La Clemenza di Tito is available on YouTube. (Warning: no subtitles.) There are reasons to watch this. There also reasons to avoid it.
As far as reasons to watch this are concerned. First of all, as far as singing goes, there are few to no weak links. Even the smaller roles are done well. Liliana Nikiteanu impressed me as Annio – I have this feeling I have seen/heard her before in something else, but I cannot put my finger on what right now. (Also, the Sesto/Annio duet near the beginning of Act I? Somehow I never registered before that that was in three. Or 6/8. Weird.) Servilia is Malin Hartelius, who sounds very pretty and is unobjectionably sweet. Günther Groissböck provides a version of Publio that I found interesting. He’s young and a little thuggish and can often be found lurking in the background. At the end, Tito is pointing a finger at him and looking angry, as if the whole mess is Publio’s fault. Given the concept of the production, this makes a certain amount of sense.
The story takes place in what looks like Italy in the 1940s. Tito (Jonas Kaufmann, who I hardly recognized with his hair up) comes across as a sort of average guy who is likely to slap you on the back and offer you a cigarette; it’s not clear why he’s in charge, but he is, and he’s doing his best. Between Annio’s jaunty fedora and the fact that all the recitatives are not sung but spoken in Italian, the whole thing has a kind of “third-rate Italian political drama about the second world war” vibe. And war movies are full of thuggish second in commands who turn out to have been causing trouble for the heroes all along. I’m not sure I believe that Publio has enough personality to really fill this roll in the story, but this seems to be the idea.
Sesto is Vesselina Kasarova, who can probably sing this role in her sleep better than most people with their eyes open. This is going to sound stupid, but sometimes I forget how lovely her voice is; I was reminded of it here. (And if there were a prize for most mobile eyebrows, she would win it in an instant.) But the thing that makes Kasarova’s performances so great, at least to me, is the way the singing is fleshed out by really subtle acting. In the acting department, Kasarova is hampered a little bit in this case by Eva Mei’s rather uninteresting Vitellia.
Vitellia is one of the best opera seria characters ever, as far as I am concerned. Or, she can be. Here, she kind of isn’t. This is not a bad performance. Indeed, there were bits of it that I really liked. In “deh, se piacer mi vuoi,” Mei has this really bright, clear, innocent-seeming sound that’s a pleasure to listen to, and some of the ornaments are great. But this is about as interesting as it gets. Mei seems to have decided to go for precision and beauty of tone over dramatic subtlety – the whole performance sounds nice, but it’s not particularly compelling. In the Annio/Vitellia/Publio trio (“vengo – aspettate – Sesto!”), for example, she sounds rather chilly.
There is plenty in this production that is worth hearing. In Tito’s “se all’impera” aria in Act II, for example, Kaufmann does some great things with one of the slower sections in the middle (my pile of opera scores is at home and I am elsewhere, so I can’t be more specific). It sounds thoughtful and interesting and I heard the aria in a way I hadn’t quite before. And Franz Welser-Möst and the orchestra have some very worthwhile moments as well. They slice into the overture and the whole things sounds very clean and clear. The repeat of the soft woodwind theme (beginning at 4.11 in the video) has a really interesting shape, too. This guy knows what he’s doing as far as Mozart is concerned.
In general, I guess that the advantage of this production is that it’s concise. The set is very simple, just a round drum-like structure with a curved staircase around it, which is inside a large gray space with big windows at the rear. (It looks a little bit like a dream version of the atrium of the British Museum.) This set serves for all the scenes without any noticeable change. In addition to this, having the recitatives spoken rather than sung makes an already short opera even more so – the entire thing clocks in at just over two hours. I don’t mean that it’s a good thing that this performance is short because it’s so bad, because it isn’t. For me it had the effect of highlighting a quality that was in the opera to begin with – musically and dramatically, this is a pretty snappy little operation. There’s a lot packed into a (relatively – it is an opera after all) small space.