Opera News July 2005
Mozart: La clemenza di Tito, Zürich, April 2005
ZURICH – La Clemenza di Tito, Zurich Opera, 4/24/05
With Jonathan Miller’s production of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito (seen April 24), Zurich Opera completed its seasonal trilogy of operatic Roman emperors. In contrast to the first two installments — Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea and Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto — the current Clemenza, conducted by Franz Welser-Möst, was free of any period-instrument ambitions (for which the house has its own brand of musicians, recruited from its normal orchestra, who perform under the name of “La Scintilla”). A surprising novelty was the decision to abandon Clemenza’s rather uninspired secco recitatives for spoken texts, concocted by a certain Iso Camartin; the operation misfired badly, due to somewhat stilted declamation from the singers. But then the whole production, designed by Isabella Bywater and set on a revolving rotunda pavilion with a spiral staircase, peopled by Romans in vaguely 1930s dresses and uniforms, lacked any dramatic urgency and fire — thus, sadly, confirming the ill-deserved reputation of Mozart’s last opera as the product of the composer’s waning creative energies.

This has been disproved, of course, by the numerous stagings of Tito that have appeared since Jean-Pierre Ponnelle mounted his groundbreaking productions at Cologne, Munich and Salzburg. Just two years ago, Salzburg’s sensational staging by Martin Kusej, conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, revealed the ominous aspects of what Kusej called, “Mozart’s night piece, his dark and sinister pendant to Zauberflöte … a twenty-four-hour journey into the night of future catastrophes, terror-attacks and firebrands of the capitol.” The political dimensions of this opera about Tito Vespasian — an emperor who did not hesitate to conquer and destroy Jerusalem — were entirely missing in Miller’s Zurich production, which stressed the man’s clemenza at the cost of the music’s vendetta thunder rollings. As in his Zurich production of Zauberflöte, Miller opted for “natural,” Age of Enlightenment behavior onstage; what materialized was a succession of tastefully arranged, immobile stage pictures, beautiful to look at but drained of all dramatic fervor. Even the firestorm of the Capitol generated only a feeble flickering of flames.

It was hard to muster much enthusiasm for Welser-Möst’s soft-grained, untheatrical approach to Mozart’s score and his careful avoidance of appoggiaturas, though it has to be admitted that the clarinet and basset-horn obbligatos — their players not credited in the program — sounded ravishing. Welser-Möst’s beat could certainly have been fueled by some extra zest, his syncopations by stronger incisiveness. Little was made of the explosive clashes of contrasting keys, Welser-Möst’s opera gentile dallyings replacing Mozart’s needed opera seria gravitas.

Tenor Jonas Kaufmann, earlier this season the highly sensuous Nero of Zurich’s L’Incoronazione, added another potentate to his fast-growing list of imperial vacillators. His Tito was half dandy, half macho-man, but wholly self-enamored, the music delivered with caressing sweetness of tone, wonderful tonal gleam and keen, shapely phrasing. The other male among the principals, Günther Groissböck, articulated his warmly sung “Tardi s’avvede” so well that one wished Mozart had provided Publio with another occasion to parade his well-oiled bass. But the darling of Zurich audiences on this occasion was certainly Vesselina Kasarova as Sesto, who created a youth of noble integrity, the purity of his mind perfectly reflected in the grand aria “Parto, ma tu ben mio,” topped by a poignant and profoundly moving A-major adagio–rondo, “Deh per questo istante solo.” Nonetheless, I found Liliana Nikiteanu’s Annio even more beguiling of tone — and certainly more boyish in appearance. As Vitellia, soprano Eva Mei fumed with appropriate venom, the even scale of her electric roulades most impressive, her attack on her high D fearless, her dives into low notes bold and sure. Mei’s serene “Non più di fiori” revealed unsuspected depths of compassion. The cast gained spring-like freshness and sunshine from Malin Hartelius’s Servilia.

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