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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Recordings Review: Rome, Built in Eighteen Days

Yannick Nézet-Séguin drives his Mozart cycle into La Clemenza di Tito.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
What's an assassination between friends?
Rolando Villazón (left) goofs with Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who conducts him in this new
La Clemenza di Tito. Photo © 2018 Deutsche Grammophon/Universal Music Group.
There are some operas in the repertory that owe their prominence not to the quality of their music but due to the circumstances of their creation. Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito ("The Clemency of Titus") is a leading example. The last opera he started (but not the last he finished) in his short time, it is an old-fashioned opera seria that was created in a great big hurry, with the composer racing to have the work ready in time for a coronation ceremony in the city of Prague. Legend is that he wrote the opera in eighteen days.

Clemenza is well represented on disc, though not as ubiquitous as, say Figaro or Don Giovanni. Last summer, Deutsche Grammophon released the latest recording: the fifth entry in a cycle of "mature Mozart operas" led by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. The recording, made in 2017 from live concert performances at the Baden-Baden Festival features the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato and tenor Rolando Villazón. The latter has been featured in all five volumes of this Mozart series so far. (He even sang the tiny role of Don Basilio in a 2017 Nozze di Figaro.)

Ten years ago, Mr. Villazón was a fast-rising star on the international opera stage, when it was discovered that he needed surgery to remove a cyst on his vocal cords. His star has not shone so brightly since then, but this recording puts him squarely in the limelight. The voice is still powerful, dry and slightly reedy,with a tendency to thin out in the upper register. However, this lack of virtuosity is turned here to the advantage: it lends a human vulnerability to the somewhat conventional figure of Tito. In the challenging  coloratura passages in "Se all'impero," Mr. Villazón pushes himself and his voice to the absolute limit in Mozart's heavily ornamented writing.

Like Mr. Villazón, Ms. DiDonato is a veteran of Mr. Nézet-Séguin's Mozart series. Here, her mezzo has thickened a little, with a creamy lower range and a lustrous upper register. She is utterly compelling in the role of Sesto, the leader of the assassins whose forgiveness by Tito marks the opera's denouement. The famous aria "Parti, parti o ben mio" is sung with the utmost sensitivity and care, accompanied by a nimble clarinet. She's even better in the Act II showpiece "Deh, per questo instante solo", singing with fierce, clarion tone and injecting meaning into every phrase.

Vitellia, the widow of a previous Roman emperor, is the architect of the attempt on Tito's life, and the cause of Sesto's subsequent misery. Marina Rebekah absolutely demolishes in this key role, following the baroque convention that the more demented and angry your character is, the higher and more difficult your singing. She makes some unattractive leaps into the uppermost register in the first act and is almost defeated by the wickedly difficult high note that caps "Deh se piacer mi vuoi." Still this is a fearsome performance, and she sounds much more at ease in the upper reaches of her instrument as the contrite Vitellia begs for her life.

Mr. Nézet-Séguin surrounds his three stars with young supporting players. Regula Mühlemann is radiant in the small and largely thankless part of Servilia, but she does make the most of a great aria. Mezzo Tara Erraught makes the most of the smaller mezzo role of Annio. Adam Plachetka is unmemorable as Publio. The chorus is absolutely top-flight. The Chamber Orchestra of Europe (with a caveat regarding some of the same orchestral quirks that haunted the earlier recordings in this series) deliver a generally strong and supple performance. The entire ensemble is at its best in the fiery Act I finale, in which Mozart (anticipating Wagner by almost fifty years) has the Capitol burnt to a cinder.

In writing Clemenza, Mozart worked so fast that he may not have had time to write the all-important recitatives. Apparently, he left the creation of those incidental, keyboard-accompanied passages that move the plot forward and bridge the emotional outbursts in the arias and ensembles to Franz Xavier Süssmayer. This is the same gentleman who, following the composer's death, would have the ugly task of completing the Requiem. The act of recording opera puts everything under a fine glass, and in this new recording, the difference between Mozart and Süssmayer is glaringly apparent.

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