Mozart La Clemenza di Tito

Author: 
Stanley Sadie

Mozart La Clemenza di Tito

  • (La) Clemenza di Tito

The appeal of La clemenza di Tito, if less immediate and less obvious than that of the other operas of Mozart's maturity, is still very powerful and very individual. Take no notice of those who talk of the stiff Metastasian plot: Tito is a classical-revival opera, a true child of its time, its emotions deeply human—Mozart was doing something new, not rehashing something old (as indeed the opera's continuing popularity after his time bears out). I am moved to make these points not only on hearing the music but also by the character of the present performance, and especially by the sheer emotional force that is evident in much of it, in the singing and also in some aspects of the direction.
The singing first. Christopher Hogwood has assembled a quite remarkable cast, with certainly two, perhaps three, outstanding readings. First among them must be Cecilia Bartoli, who rightly establishes Sextus as the central character, the one whose actions and whose feelings are the focal point of the drama. The opening number is the duet ''Come ti piace, imponi'', where the firm and pure sound of Bartoli's voice, in contrast with the contained hysteria of Vitellia's, at once defines the opera's basis. It is clear from her singing that she reads Sextus, for all his weakness in giving way to Vitellia, as a man of integrity, one of the noblest Romans of them all. You hear this same purity of line and sense, this same purity of spirit, in the grand aria ''Parto, parto'', wonderfully sung: the final stretto is really superb, the triplets beautifully articulated; and listen to the interesting touch at the recapitulation of the main Allegro, slowed down and reflective, and very affecting without sounding at all affected. Lesley Schatzberger plays the clarinet obbligato here very finely, and also of course the basset-horn obbligato in Vitellia's last aria (as she also does, no less finely, on the Gardiner recording). Bartoli's performance reaches its climax, as it should, in the marvellous A major rondo, the Adagio, very slow and profoundly pathetic, the final stretto again determined and full of fire.
Then there is Della Jones's remarkable Vitellia, on which I have already touched. Her first aria is quite carefully done, varied in tone and colour, and with some hints in her timing of a kind of malevolent wit—echoed later in her evil laugh that rings out as Sextus finally goes off to set the fatal plot in train. There are lots of interesting and emotionally suggestive touches in her singing, which is very committed and very passionate, if not perhaps immaculately tidy—but then, tidiness is no part of Vitellia's persona. The final rondo, ''Non piu di fiori'', is done with real grandeur, as Vitellia rediscovers her Roman heritage of honour and rises to it, above petty ambition. Jones's rich bottom register is magnificent: and I might add that the top Bs and the top D in ''Vengo, aspettate''—of which she gives a properly desperate account—have no fears for her. Then there is Uwe Heilmann as Titus, marked by much subtle and finely shaped singing and a keen awareness of how phrasing conveys sense. Occasionally the tone is inclined to be nasal, but that does not interfere with a very sympathetic and often moving reading. The dialogue recitative with Sextus in Act 2 is specially fine.
Barbara Bonney makes a really lovely Servillia, soft-toned and warm: one only regrets that Mozart gave her only a single aria. Diana Montague makes a capable Annius, very cleanly and clearly sung, if without much individuality in her treatment of the music; and Publius's aria draws a distinguished piece of singing from Gilles Cachemaille. He sings in all three of the trios, too, with style and clarity; these are conducted by Hogwood at particularly high tension—as one would expect in ''Vengo, aspettate'', but also, strikingly, in ''Quello di Tito e il volto'', where Sextus's shudders of horror are palpable. Hogwood's keen awareness of what, expressively speaking, is going on in the music, and his refusal to be tied to a rigid rhythmic pulse in order to make it manifest, is one of the strengths of this recording.
The recitatives are sung with a great deal of life and awareness of meaning, not simply gabbled through at maximum speed. These, of course, are not Mozart's own work (he was too pressed for time as the premiere approached, and unwell) but almost certainly Sussmayr's, and they are decent routine work though lacking the kind of touch that Mozart himself brought to simple recitative with his subtler sense of timing, of key-change and its capacity to point up some crucial emotional shift, and of the effect of variation of pace. Usually, in La clemenza di Tito, the recitative is heavily cut; I believe this is the first time I have heard it in full. Gardiner, whose performance is cited above, cuts it extensively, and—bearing in mind particularly that his performances were recordings of concert performances—no one is likely to blame him for that. While some may feel that the inclusion of every note, as in the present version, is an advantage, others may not unreasonably take the opposite view. At any rate, a new track begins for each aria, which enables the listener to cut without difficulty. Hogwood is undogmatic about the use of appoggiaturas: here and there I would have favoured more, but my impression is that he has left it to the singers to do what comes naturally, and that is its own argument.
There are now two very fine recordings of this opera with period instruments and to choose between them would be arbitrary. Both are excellently sung; had I to make a singer by singer comparison, I would probably rate them four to two in Hogwood's favour. Gardiner's performance does have the advantage of a stronger sense of continuity, derived no doubt from the fact of its having been recorded more or less live. Both give very fine accounts of this noble and underrated work.'

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