MOZART La Clemenza di Tito
Listening to this work so soon after Die Zauberflote leaves one amazed anew at the miracle of Mozart, namely that the same composer could simultaneously write the ne plus ultra of Singspiel and the ne plus ultra of opera seria, in each case really re-inventing the genres for his own inspired purposes. Harnoncourt, in the course of an extensive interview that comes in this set's booklet, makes the point as regards Tito and also has much to say about the work's construction and character motivation that is challenging and illuminating. And those epithets, as you might expect from this probing conductor, are ones that may be applied to his interpretation.
As I have suggested before in these pages, this opera has obviously been born under a lucky star where recordings are concerned. None of those at present in the catalogue would be an unsatisfactory representation in any collection. Comparing Harnoncourt's performance with his nearest rival, the period-instrument Gardiner version, left me startled at the differences in approach. Gardiner uses lower pitch; Harnoncourt does not and, as is his wont nowadays, uses modern instruments, except for natural horns and trumpets, while adapting period practice to them in terms of low toleration of vibrato in the strings, non-legato phrasing, prominent and often raw wind and brass, more audible here than on the Gardiner.
Within that obedience to stylistic conformity as it is now perceived, he reads the work in a far more romantic, nineteenth-century manner than Gardiner. That is exhibited in tempos that are always slower, sometimes much slower, than Gardiner's, something we have learnt to recognize from all Harnoncourt's recordings of Mozart opera. In Sesto's arias, and sometimes elsewhere, I found this deliberate, leisurely approach rather impeded the music's natural flow; in Tito's and to a lesser extent Vitellia's music it adds a certain stature and solemnity not inappropriate to at least the Emperor's utterance.
But the the whole of Harnoncourt's approach is grander, one might say more imperial, even imperious, than Gardiner's. That doesn't exclude dramatic impetus: the headlong flight of the overture tells us that we are in for a story that is to be taken very seriously indeed, and so it continues throughout, that impetus helped by the drastic foreshortening of the recitatives. Then the sound adds to the contrast between the two versions. The Harnoncourt has been recorded in a large, seemingly empty hall with a deal of reverberance. The Gardiner, made live in London's Queen Elizabeth Hall, offers a more intimate, closer-miked aural picture, one wholly suited to the more immediate and direct performance.
The Harnoncourt is also, with one exception, more grandly sung, that exception being the Vitellia of Lucia Popp, her recording swan-song where opera is concerned. Hers is a lighter voice than Varady's (Gardiner), more easy of movement, more gentle in expression. The way she shows Vitellia's equivocal emotions in her first aria and accents words such as ''sospetti'' and ''alletta'' emphasizes Vitellia's emotional control over Sesto at this point besides being a lovely piece of Mozartian singing. Much the same applies to the remorseful ''Non piu di fiori''. The illumination of character from within and the special, elegiac sound of Popp's tone only point up our loss through her early death. Only a couple of somewhat glaring high notes, evincing wear in this region, mar this farewell appearance. Varady's fuller, more vibrant sound and her fiery portrayal, for Gardiner (and for Bohm), are quite as arresting. Baker (Davis) offers something else again, bringing out better than her rivals the vicious, calculating side of Vitellia's nature.
Murray encompasses all the technical demands of Sesto's music, delivers recitative and aria with the passionate commitment for which she is noted and fines down her tone to the needs of the start of her Act 2 aria. Under pressure her tone can now sound a shade worn, even ugly, but such moments are few and her assumption of the role at the Salzburg Festival this summer is eagerly awaited as she is always such a convincing figure on stage. Even so von Otter (Gardiner) sounds more the impressionable youth in thrall to his unrequited love for Vitellia, and her execution at Gardiner's more forward-moving speeds proves more apt for the part.
I cannot choose between Langridge and Rolfe Johnson (Gardiner). As befits his conductor's interpretation, Langridge's reading is the more forceful, the more heroic, with a touch of metal in the tone to show Tito is not all clemency. Rolfe Johnson's more mellifluous singing on the other hand is better at suggesting just that goodness of nature. Both are technically beyond reproach. Ziegler's voice as Annio is too akin to Murray's and she is not as sympathetic as Gardiner's Catherine Robbin, nor is Ziesak, an attractive Servilia, not quite in the McNair class, but Harnoncourt's Polgar is more imposing as Publio than Gardiner's Hauptmann.
In spite of my being wholly absorbed in Harnoncourt's highly individual reading and admiring much of what he does, especially with his players (one or two idiosyncracies apart), Gardiner must remain first choice because of his more arresting and immediate recording. Those seeking a mid-price version are hardly getting second best by choosing Bohm, still the most warmly recorded set and graced by superb playing by the Dresden Staatskapelle, or Davis, a lovingly shaped, more lyrical reading, beautifully sung. As I say, we are indeed spoilt for choice-and I have not this time even considered the Kertesz (Decca, 5/91).'