Have you ever read John Barth’s novel The Sot-Weed Factor? I mention this because there is a bit in it where the main character, poet-laureate of colonial Maryland Ebenezer Cooke, finds that he cannot find a rhyme to the phrase “a-coloneling”, spelled “a-kernalling” (I think this is the spelling – I am away from my books at the moment, so I can’t look it up). His friend Henry Burlingame ponders this, and then replies, with an evil gleam in his eye, that he too “cannot rhyme the infernal thing.” Ebenezer is just starting to get even grumpier when Henry starts spouting paragraph after paragraph of couplets that rhyme with “kernalling”, “infernal thing” “vernallings” “sempiternal things” and so on – at one point, he gets stuck, and then suddenly explodes with “Ha! ha! I have hatched more!” and then goes on for another page. It’s quite funny.
I bring this up because it seems to me that obscure non-Mozart Baroque versions of La Clemenza di Tito are a bit like English rhymes for “kernalling.” Just when you think you have found them all, someone hatches another one.
I found the infernal thing by way of Vivica Genaux and Simone Kermes’ new Rival Queens recording. Like Kermes’s Colori d’Amore CD, this one advertises a few “world premiere” items. I want to write the rest of this review in rhymed couplets, but I cannot do it. Perhaps that is for the best. Anyway, there are some arias on here that have never been recorded before, but as the case with Kermes’s other recording, I’m not sure it matters very much. This is another one of those cases of well-executed renditions of music that one might not otherwise seek out. It’s a pleasant 80 minutes or so, don’t mistake me – the orchestral playing is bright and crisp, and Kermes and Genaux are both very much in their element with this music. (We can ignore the queens in boxing gloves cover art – though by process of association it did remind me of Jane Austen Fight Club. We’ve all seen that, right?) At the same time, I would not have bought it if I don’t make a point of acquiring all the Vivica Genaux recordings I can get my hands on. She is not disappointing here – but I would rather listen to her sing Handel or Vivaldi.
That said, let it be added to the record that in addition to the settings of La Clemenza di Tito by Mozart, Gluck, Galuppi and many others there is a version by one Giuseppe Arena which premiered in Torino in 1739. The bit of we get here is Vitellia’s aria “come potesti, o dio” which appears to comes at the point in the drama where Vitellia has begun to feel a bit guilty. It’s an introspection aria that doesn’t feel particularly introspective – there are some sudden drops to softness, where Vitellia registers horror, but, the vibe is more of an extroverted “fire and damnation! I’ve been real bad!” It goes by with alarming speed given its (presumed – I have not seen Arena’s version of this opera) function within the story. Vitellia has hardly made it through a phrase expressing her dismay and alarm (Kermes does these very well, I should say) when the music hurtles her on to something else. The whole thing is over in 3 minutes and 20 seconds – if the whole opera is like this, I think it would be kind of exhausting. A sort of Flash Tito for those evenings when you just don’t have three hours.