I have to say, ever since I witnessed a performance of the Act I march of this opera that involved martial artists and yelling, I find I miss them – and their shouts of “huh!” at key moments – when they’re not around. However, I do realize that the likelihood of martial artists and yelling becoming standard performance practice for Mozart operas is small. (I could see it working in Die Zauberflöte, though.)
The aspect of this recording that I enjoyed the most was the consistency of the interpretation. From the beginning of the overture, it’s clear that Gardiner isn’t wasting any time. The tempos are consistently brisk – not rushed or pushed, but brisk. Occasionally I was startled by how quickly the recitatives were taken. Sesto and Vitellia’s opening conversation seemed to hurtle past, for example, and those were some damn speedy bassoons at the beginning of Tito’s “ah, se fosse intorno.” Only in a few places, though, did the tempo seem too fast, e.g. Tito’s recitative before “se all’impero,” where he’s figuring out what to do about Sesto.
For the most part, though, the impression I came away with was one of thoughtful precision – everything that needs to happen happens, and often happens very neatly. My favorite part of Sesto and Vitellia’s “come ti piace imponi” duet (around Vitellia’s “prima che sol tramonti” line) is one of those bits that can sound really weird if the vocal part and the orchestra don’t track perfectly – and here they do. The precision of it just makes you go “yes!” It’s great.
This is not precision of the dry type, either. Everything is exactly where it should be, but there’s also a gentleness to it and flexibility – it’s quick, but it does not run like clockwork. I heard this often in the final chords of various sections, e..g. the last (orchestral) notes that neatly round off Annio and Servilia’s Act I duet. It was also evident in things like the tympani in the orchestral interludes and marches – clear and precise, but an expressive sort of clarity and precision.
When the music or the drama needs a little more space, though, it gets it – and when this happens, the contrast is all the more effective. The pacing expands in the finale of Act I, for example, and for Sesto’s (Anne Sofie von Otter) “deh, per questo instante solo.” Julia Varady (Vitellia) slides through parts of the “ecco il punto” recitative quickly, but things slow down for the following aria. The things I noticed about that were the balance that either musicians or musicians and engineers achieved between the solo vocal part and the orchestral parts – the soprano/basset horn interaction is very nice. Varady has the low notes, too (even though – like pretty much everyone – she sounds a little growly on the low G towards the end).
I enjoyed Varady’s angry-(occasionally hectoring)-but-not-nuts Vitellia and von Otter as Sesto. One could probably write an additional 300 words or so about von Otter and how it’s always a pleasure to hear her sing Mozart, and how fun it is when Sesto gets hurt, or sad, or angry – but that’s pretty much the whole opera, isn’t it. I had settled into not having much of an opinion about Cornelius Hauptmann as Publio, but “tardi, s’avvedi” surprised me. In contrast to what I had registered from him before, it sounded sort of – sprightly I guess is the word. It had personality, as did the following recitative. My consistent impression of Catherine Robbin (Annio) and Sylvia McNair (Servilia) was a sort of baseline “eh” punctuated by a few moments of interest. They achieved a very pretty, flutey-sounding blend of voices at the end of their duet in Act I, and McNair’s sad little “ecco la mano” as Servilia resignedly agrees to marry Tito if he wants was sweet.
I went back and looked after listening to this, and I discovered that I have eight recordings of this opera – four on CD and four on DVD, including two that I haven’t listened to in ages (the René Jacobs one, and another one conducted by Charles Mackerras with Kozena as Sesto). I’m not sure whether this is a sign I ought to leave it alone for a while and, you know, listen to something else for a change – or go the completist route and acquire all possible Titos.