Met Opera shows audience some clemency

I was late on the Met’s revival of La clemenza di Tito, but I did go on Thursday and thought I would briefly recap. As many others have already written, this is one of the best evenings at the Met so far this season, and in the Mozart department specifically worlds better than the dire Figaro (and, from what I hear, the current Don Giovanni as well). The conducting and direction are detailed, insightful, and precise, and the cast is excellent. Conductor Harry Bicket is associated with HIP performance and here gave a swift and light yet still dignified interpretation, and the orchestra sounded pretty great. (As much as I like HIP Mozart, having the superior intonation of the modern clarinet in Tito is always a blessing. But fortunately here a harpsichord replaced Figaro‘s piano in the recits.)

The cast is led by android mezzo Elina Garanca as Sesto. This was the first time I’d heard her since she’d had her baby, and her voice, always a secure and smooth instrument, seems to have become warmer and richer, a definite improvement. She is a lovely Mozart singer–while her exactitude and cool temperament can come off as overly detached and anonymous in other repertoire, here they are elegant, and she is much better-suited for seeming noble and conflicted than she is at pretending she’s a dirty and passionate gypsy. She stayed almost entirely on the tracks in the obstacle course portion of “Parto, parto,” and did something astonishing in “Deh, per questo istate solo,” Sesto’s lowest and most vulnerable point–she acted quite well! This was, along with her appropriately distant Charlotte in Wien, the most convincing performance I’ve seen from her, and vocally definitely the best.

Barbara Frittoli’s voice may not be quite refulgent–the high notes have a wobble, and the tone is not quite velvety–, but she’s a real artist and imbues this difficult music with expression and finesse. She threw herself into the production’s rather undignified conception of Vitellia with humor, and has excellent comic timing. She seems to have borrowed her fruity “Non più di fiori” chest voice from Karita Mattila, which is not good, but vocal imperfections are forgivable in crazy lady music, particularly when you sing it with this kind of conviction. Debutant Lucy Crowe (once an excellent Sophie in München) sounded gorgeous as Servilia, with a sweet and peachy tone with just a bit of an edge to it, and impeccable musicianship. She is also a fine actress. Kate Lindsey has a leaner voice than Garanca, giving her Annio some contrast, and while her singing is classy it was somewhat less glamorous than the rest of the women.

This leaves us with Tito, the only male role of importance. Russell Thomas took the second half of this run this performance only (replacing Giuseppe Filianoti). He’s got a sweet tenor voice and can more or less handle the strenuous coloratura of “Se all’impero,” but the lower notes tend to be unstable in pitch and projection. He is a decent actor, starting off with something more interesting (slightly insecure and nervous) than he ended up with at the end. While a good enough performance, he was overall not on the same level as the women and I kind of wish I had seen Filianoti.

Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s production dates from 1984, and everyone seems very enchanted by its elaborate lighting plot (sometimes unnecessarily showy–slow down those crossfades! or can the dimmers not handle it?) and clean white drapery. I wonder if all the petticoat-fanciers recognize that it is the intellectual grandparent of Stefan Herheim’s Serse. The costumes combine eighteenth-century motifs with quasi-Roman ones, and Tito’s Forum is already a cracked ruin (no less than Stanley Sadie criticized this decision upon the premiere–“in Tito’s time the Forum was still quite new”–to which I say, no shit, Sherlock, and Servilia wasn’t dressed like Donna Anna back then, either). Vitellia is a deposed noblewoman, Tito’s hereditary power is maintained solely due to strength of character–and he wonders if even that will be enough. The sense of something being extended past its logical expiration date is a commentary on the opera’s place in history, an outdated opera seria composed in 1791, an anachronistic tribute to both a musical logic and a political power that no longer promised the certainty they once did. It’s a fine production and has been revived well here, though the burning of Rome is not the best effect ever.

There’s only one more performance but I encourage you to catch it if you can, and the HD should be on PBS at some point.

Mozart, La clemenza di Tito. Metropolitan Opera, 12/6/2012. Production by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle (revival), conducted by Harry Bicket with Russell Thomas (Tito), Elina Garanca (Sesto), Barbara Frittoli (Vitellia), Lucy Crowe (Servilia), Kate Lindsey (Annio), Oren Gradus (Publio).

Video: Elina Garanca sings the opening of “Parto, parto”

Photo copyright Ken Howard/Met.

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  1. Thanks, Zerbinetta, for this review. I had to miss the live Met in HD broadcast but I'm looking forward to seeing the theatrical encore on December 19th. (And I think Filianoti was Tito in that broadcast.)

  2. Right you are, Cieca. I'll correct. I'm not a huge fan of Filianoti's singing but heard he did something more interesting with the character than I got from Thomas, so I'm sorry I missed him!