You know how sometimes in life you feel a kind of obligation, out of thoroughness, to do a specific thing, and then as soon as you do it – sometimes even during – you discover that this is one of those things that need be done only once, if at all, and you will be quite content never to do it again?
Obviously I am talking about watching a slightly grainy French-subtitled DVD of Gluck’s version of La Clemenza di Tito. It was a coproduction of several different arts organizations – the list in the credits is long – and looks like it was broadcast on TV. Someone taped it, and now I have it. The musical direction is by Jean-Claude Malgoire; stage director François Porcile; sets and costumes by Martin Schlumpf.
Musically this is a very different experience from the Mozart version. I understand now why it isn’t staged more often – the emotional range feels a little limited. The best moments were (first of all) the famous “se mai senti spirarti sul volto” aria (Sesto’s farewell to Vitellia in Act II). It’s sung here by soprano Audrey Michael with a restraint and fragility that seem entirely appropriate to the character – it’s lovely to listen to, despite the orchestra swamping Michael a little in the first section. You can see why it’s performed on its own so often. The oboe player also deserves praise, here and elsewhere – there are a lot of oboe solos in this opera.
I also like some of Vitellia’s arias, e.g. “quando sarà quel di” at the end of Act I (Vitellia is roughly in the same place here as she is in “Vengo! – aspettate! – Sesto!” in the Mozart version, i.e. “Oh, FUCK.”) My enjoyment of this was due to the music itself and to the singing of soprano Nobuko Takahashi, who has both a big resonant voice (here she dominates Sesto vocally as well as psychologically) and a feel for big drama. She can border on hammy now and then, e.g. in some of the recitative leading up to “quando sarà” but the singing is commanding and exciting. (I’d be halfway curious to find out whether she ever performed “real” Vitellia – based on this, it wouldn’t be boring.)
But on the whole, a lot of the music in this sounded kind of the same. When a character steps up to belt out an aria (there aren’t many ensembles here) often the feel of the music doesn’t change much from person to person. You hear upset, dignified (sort of perky and forthright) and occasionally mellow/sad/resolved, e.g. Tito’s “se all’impero”, with a very pretty recorder part, which evokes both beauty and sadness – Tito has made his decision, but the feeling of resolve has a different flavor than in the Mozart version, where sometimes it seems that Tito is almost daring the gods to disagree with him. (Also, this might as well go here as anywhere: whenever there is an important solo from the orchestra during an aria, the video direction gives us a static shot of the instrument being played, with the musician’s hands, but not his/her face, always from the same angle: it’s sort of weird.) So there is variation, but variation within a smaller range. The emotions feel muted. My experience of this is colored – whose wouldn’t be? – by the Mozart version, but watching and listening to this, you really notice the effectiveness of Mozart’s music, and also Caterino Mazzolà’s changes to Metastasio’s libretto. Here are the differences that I found the most striking:
Sesto is a soprano, not a mezzo. This is not necessarily a bad thing, just a difference. The contrast in sound in this performance between Michael and Takahashi emphasized Sesto’s vulnerability (not to mention that Michael’s body language and slight build occasionally made Sesto seem like a seventeen-year-old boy – as if Cherubino had been abruptly dropped into an extremely interesting situation that he is probably not going to handle very well.) The production also leaned a little on the ambiguous relationship between Sesto and Tito. Early on, Tito (John Elwes) keeps trying to kiss Sesto’s cheek, which seems to make Sesto uncomfortable; later in the same scene (it’s the one in Act I where Tito tells Sesto he plans to marry Servilia) he puts a ring on Sesto’s finger.
Publio is a haute-contre – or so he (Charles Brett) is listed, though based on sound, I am not sure if this is one of those times when haute-contre means something distinct from countertenor nor not. He sounds like a countertenor. If there were many ensembles this would make more of a difference, but there aren’t, so it merely takes some getting used to. Publio gets one moment of near-comedy in this version. He has an aria along the lines of “even if things seem ok, it’s best to be cautious” in Act I (the text is some damned business about waves and well-prepared navigators) and near the end it looks like he is about to launch into another section of the thing, but then Servilia shows up, cutting him off. It’s kind of cute. Servilia, of course, is there to explain to Tito that she’s grateful for the marriage proposal, but she’d rather marry Annio; Tito is pleased with her honesty, grants her request and in this instance presents her with a large sheet of paper, which I can only imagine is a kind of Certificate of Not Having to Marry The Emperor.
The drama is a little different, and the music makes it more so. For example, the text of the Mozart “come ti piace imponi” duet for Sesto and Vitellia is there – you hear bits of the same lines, “il mio destin tu sei,” “prima che il sol tramonti” – but it’s recitative rather than a duet, and Vitellia’s subsequent “deh, se piacer me vuoi” is sort of perky and sprightly rather than wheedling and sexy. Later, when Vitellia asks Sesto why he isn’t going already, and Sesto’s all “jeez, parto, parto,” the recitative runs BANG into the vocal line of the aria. There isn’t a long orchestral introduction, and so Sesto’s moment of steeling himself doesn’t feel as powerful. These changes in music and text (as well as what happens to Annio, below) have the effect of making the Sesto/Vitellia relationship less intense and claustrophobic and as a result less interesting.
Annio is pulled into the story a little more. In this version, everyone thinks for a little while in Act II that he was part of the failed conspiracy. (He and Sesto switch cloaks, and Sesto forgot to take his conspirator’s badge off of his – not to mention it was all bloody – and this leads to the confusion that gets Annio in trouble, and to learn all this I had to watch several sections of recitative several times so that I had time to read all the French subtitles, because my Italian is not such that I can make out what sopranos and countertenors are getting at especially if I’ve never heard it before. I am not sure that the information I retrieved from this process was worth feeling of mild futility one derives from watching people say “oh dio!” over and over while gesturing at poor Annio’s cloak, but them’s the breaks, I guess.) So Sesto has to fret over whether to fess up and save his friend as well as deal with the whole Vitellia problem. It gives Annio (a very youthful Dominique Visse, who wraps his smooth, silvery voice very neatly around some arias that go on a little longer than maybe they should) more to do, but it renders Vitellia less important because she is not the sole focus of Sesto’s concern – the focus of the drama gets blurred a little. And also it takes longer to get through.
Servilia (Elisabeth Baudry) doesn’t check up on Vitellia before “ecco il punto, o Vitellia” and after that “ecco il punto” recitative we get . . . wait for it . . . AN ARIA ABOUT A BOAT IN A TEMPEST. I feel like I should have seen this one coming, somehow. The text of the aria is about how, in adverse weather, a good pilot will jettison unnecessary baggage, even treasure. I cannot help but conclude that Mozart (and Mazzolà) improved upon this somewhat.
Finally, there is a moment in Tito’s “ah, se fosse” where you get a pattern of chords that Mozart seems to have echoed in his version, as a kind of little reference.
If anyone comes across a complete recording of, say, the Baldassare Galuppi version of this opera, or the one by Josef Mysleveček, please do not tell me.