The Times, 4 May 2005
John Allison
Mozart: La clemenza di Tito, London May 2005
La clemenza di Tito
John Allison at the Festival Hall
THE build-up to the big Mozart festivities next year — the 250th anniversary of his birth — is already bringing us an unprecedented number of productions of La clemenza di Tito. A good thing too, for this work’s comeback over the past few decades is still accepted somewhat grudgingly in certain quarters. A magnificent late flowering of the static opera seria genre, it was composed in the trying circumstances of Mozart’s final months. If it is true that not every bar burns with the composer’s highest invention, it is equally fair to say that it also includes some of his most inspired music. Has the pain of human parting ever been more acutely captured than in “Ah, perdona al primo affetto”, the bittersweet duet for the young lovers Servilia and Annio?

Zurich Opera has recently unveiled Jonathan Miller’s new production of Clemenza, and here the cast, conductor and orchestra had hot-footed it over to the South Bank for a concert performance.

Well, most of them, but it was no loss that two of the soloists were indisposed. In the central role of Sesto, instead of the routinely underwhelming Bulgarian mezzo Vesselina Kasarova we got the sensational American Susan Graham, who electrified this performance and drew applause for her two arias that made the Festival Hall sound more like La Scala.

Any top opera house that doesn’t strive to get Graham’s Sesto needs to have its head read. With her creamy tone, passionate delivery and rock-solid technique, she is unbeat-able in this music. In her Act II aria her soft singing expressed depths of remorse, and together with the conductor Franz Welser-Möst and clarinettist Robert Pickup she built Parto, parto into a tour de force.

Welser-Möst drew cultivated playing from this orchestra, to whose delicacy and glow the natural trumpets added an exciting edge. If the conductor was perhaps inclined to linger in the slow numbers, he still shaped a crisp performance.

The idea of jettisoning those uninspired recitatives by Süssmayr, who also completed Mozart’s Requiem, was a good one, and they were replaced by bare-bones dialogue.

No one spoke that dialogue better than the Italian soprano Eva Mei, who brought plenty of temperament to her Vitellia. Jonas Kaufmann was a full-toned Tito, impressive except in a few passages of vocal dryness. Hana Minutillo as the stand-in but ardent Annio, Malin Hartelius, Günther Groissböck and the chorus all made their mark; what a pity that the Festival Hall’s refurbishment means no Zurich Opera visits next season.

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