Finn got things going by throwing up on my office floor. So we are having a nice quiet evening of Mozart and close monitoring of the dog.
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.
In the course of a discussion with a fellow scholar about whether it would be a good idea or not to try to listen to all extant recordings of La Clemenza di Tito (conclusion: maybe) one of us observed that the title of this opera sounds a little bland translated into English: The Mercy of Titus. Or The Clemency of Titus. (I don’t think anyone would switch it around and render the possessive the other way because the combination of a word ending in s and an apostrophe would just make everyone nervous.)
And then we considered whether there were any foreign-language operas whose titles sound better or at least more snappy when rendered in English.
We arrived at The Permission of Titian and decided to stop there.
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.)
This performance confirmed me in a few longstanding opinions and made me rethink a few others. The production, billed as “new to Chicago,” is by David McVicar and for me it slotted in neatly with my pre-existing constellation of opinions about this opera. The costumes – empire-style dresses for the women and late 18th-century (somewhere between 1790 and 1815?) suits for the men – evoked a sense of classical revival, which of course what this opera is in several different senses.
I have a slightly terrifying work deadline on the first of March, which means that lately I am often in my office later into the evening than I should be. This is not always as productive as it seems. After a certain point, one stops writing and starts watching YouTube clips of La Clemenza di Tito. It is probably unnecessary to indicate which performance. Actually, it’s probably unnecessary even to post the video. We all know which one it is.
But in the interest of variety and also in the interest of not thinking about the Glorious Revolution for a few minutes, I decided to try something new. Here is Lucia Popp singing Vitellia’s last aria:
There’s a lovely lyric smoothness to this. Kind of just floats along. It’s gentle. Not necessarily what one is used to, but nice all the same.
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But how does it sound? Over all, not bad. Veronique Gens’s Vitellia is
very tall very seductive. The way she handles the repetitions of “alletta” at the end of “deh, se piacer me vuoi” leave no doubt as to why Sesto finds her fascinating, and the series of silky-looking slip dresses she slinks around in don’t hurt either. Vitellia has flashes of anger – she tips over a chair at one point, but quickly dials it back when Sesto comes in – and the odd moment of vulnerability, but she’s neither supremely ambitious nor supremely nuts. The general emotional color of the performance is consistent with that domestic drama vibe I mentioned before.
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A point about the overture, and the orchestral playing in general. The conductor is Ludovic Morlot, and he has things to say with this music. The overture felt measured, precise and clear, and there was a similar kind of mellowness or ease in the solo clarinet during “parto, parto.” At several points I was hearing things that I hadn’t heard or at least hadn’t focused on before, like the attacks in the lower string parts during the “vengo – aspettate – Sesto!” trio or the way the flute part follows Servilia in her first lines of the duet with Annio in Act I. Whoever was operating the basset horn during “non più di fiori” also got in the odd moment of pretty phrasing, although there was a bit of a “toot toot toot” quality to it at the beginning.
I have heard La Clemenza di Tito so many times that listening to it feels like a variety of introspection – my reaction to any given performance is not simply a reaction to that performance, but also to all the other performances that I have heard. Also, it strikes me that either the advantage or the disadvantage to constant access to high-quality performances via DVD and the internet, like this one from Brussels, is that you rarely hear a truly bad rendition of anything. Sometimes one (by ‘one’ I mean ‘me’) picks nits about the interpretation, or takes issue with tempos, but I don’t actually think I’ve ever seen what I would call a truly sub-par performance of this opera.
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?
The text in this aria, “se mai senti spirarti sul volto,” is nearly identical to that used for the aria of the same title in the Gluck version of La Clemenza di Tito. When I heard the above, I assumed that it was from one of the many other versions of Tito that were composed to the same libretto in the eighteenth century.
Apparently the libretto that Mozart used for La Clemenza di Tito – the one by Pietro Metastasio, with revisions for Mozart by Caterino Mazzolá – was one of those bike-share libretti of the eighteenth century, in the sense that pretty much everyone took a ride, if by everyone we understand Mozart, Gluck and Josef Mysliveček.
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.
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There were parts of this that I liked more than others. Catherine Malfitano as Servilia was rather sweet – but she didn’t have much to do most of the time other than cock her head and look concerned (there was enough of this that at times it was more wobbling her head and looking concerned, but I’m not sure that this is entirely Malfitano’s fault). I enjoyed listening to Kurt Rydl (Publio)’s voice, but this is not the type of production that attempts to make Publio interesting, so he wasn’t, very much. But the sound was nice.
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As mentioned, this DVD was filmed amid real Roman ruins in Rome. And it’s a movie of an opera, not a DVD of a performance – the action moves around several different areas, none of which is a stage as such. (I think the audio and the video were recorded separately, too. For one thing, it doesn’t sound as if it’s being performed outside. For another, you can see little blips in the synching here and there. And finally, that would have to be a mighty mobile orchestra that maestro Levine was conducting.)
I bought this on a whim, because the idea of Janet Baker as Vitellia was too intriguing to pass up. Also because in every other performance I’ve heard of this, Vitellia is sung by a soprano rather than a mezzo and I figured the recording might be interesting for that reason too. As it turns out, this recording is interesting for many reasons.