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MOZART: La Clemenza di Tito

CD Button Rebeka, Mühlemann, DiDonato, Erraught; Villazón, Plachetka; RIAS Kammerchor, Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Nézet-Séguin. Text and translation. DG 4835210 (2)

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LA CLEMENZA DI TITO  is the unloved child among Mozart’s late operas. Its opera seria conventions render it archaic in a way that the da Ponte operas most definitely are not, and its dramaturgy is a hurdle: Titus is so clement that he all but forgives away its dramatic impulse. But this exemplary recording, drawn from concert performances at the 2017 Baden-Baden Festival, makes a riveting case for the piece.

The performance takes hold even in its secco recitatives. These are not Mozart’s work—pressed for time, he farmed them out to his pupil Franz Süssmayr—but they are nonetheless structurally and dramatically essential to the piece. Here, the singers and continuo players (Jory Vinikour, fortepiano; William Conway, cello) give them thrust and meaning, sustaining the drama through the long stretches of dialogue. They no doubt take their cue from conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, whose leadership of the “Mozart” sections displays a heightened awareness of the musical and theatrical needs of each passing moment. He imposes small tempo fluctuations in every number, but these never call attention to themselves; instead, they reflect the characters’ thought processes while giving shape and impetus to the music.

Joyce DiDonato could make a smashing effect just through her impeccable technique and the instrumental beauty of her mezzo-soprano. But her Sesto is also a stirring example of vocal acting. She makes the nobleman’s moral dilemma palpable throughout: we hear in her inflections Sesto’s crisis of conscience. DiDonato saves her most dulcet tones, appropriately, for the final sextet: the work’s conflicts resolved, the undertone of anxiety in her tone dissipates, and the number elicits from her a demonstration of pure bel canto elegance.

The hint of steel in Marina Rebeka’s voice suits Vitellia’s selfish, cruel nature, but its gleaming appeal suggests why the princess can so easily seduce Sesto into doing her bidding. She maintains the tone’s core in passagework—essential in this role, but also a rare quality in such a dramatic instrument. When Vitellia’s hard façade melts away in “Non più di fiori,” Rebeka makes her as pitiable as she is formidable.

As Annio, Tara Erraught displays a mezzo-soprano with a lower center of gravity, contrasting nicely with DiDonato’s. The character doesn’t have much to do other than react, but Erraught’s reactions are always alert and engaged. Regula Mühlemann brings a thoroughly fresh lyric soprano to the role of Servilia. 

The recording’s male contingent is somewhat less praiseworthy. The title role falls to Rolando Villazón, a constant in Nézet-Séguin’s Mozart series on Deutsche Grammophon. Some deft phrasing in the recitatives attests to his artistry, but under any kind of pressure, his voice becomes constricted and throaty. The coloratura of “Se all’impero, amici Dei” is a trial. As Publio, Adam Plachetka emits unsteady tone that is distressing to hear from a singer in his early thirties.

The Chamber Orchestra of Europe combines a period-instrument band’s transparency with a modern ensemble’s weight. Under Nézet-Séguin’s guidance, the court scenes have an imperial splendor that never tips over into bombast. The whole makes you realize all over again what a master orchestrator Mozart was. —Fred Cohn



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