This has been such a busy semester for me — in terms of teaching, administrative duties at the Law School, and concertgoing — that my blogging has fallen by the wayside. (I was also distracted by following the national election campaigns, happily concluded from my perspective.) I have a big accumulation of musical events in particular to write about. But I thought I'd dip my toe back in with the most recent, last night's performance at the Metropolitan Opera of Mozart's "La Clemenza di Tito," a 1984 production that they bring back periodically.
La Clemenza is a rarity for mature Mozart, an opera that is not really a "hit." The piece was put together on a short commission for a coronation ceremony, and reverts to the "opera seria" genre that was all but obsolete by 1791. The idea that it was dashed off quickly in an archaic format worked against its permanent repertory status. After brief popularity when it was new, it faded away. A leading dramatic role was conceived for male castrato, another count against it dramatically, since by the early 19th century such creatures were scarce, and it wasn't until mid-20th century that some high-voiced males started to experiment with the "counter-tenor" range that would make performances of such parts by men possible.
In the event, the Met sacrifices some dramatic verity by casting a woman in the role of Sesto – the dramatic lead of the show, the man torn between loyalty to his friend, the Roman Emperor Titus, and his beloved, Vitellia, daughter of the previous Emperor who is scheming to get Titus "knocked off." In this rendition of the old production (from 1984), Elina Garanca sings the role of Sesto and practically steals the show. She certainly leaves in the shade Giuseppe Filianoti, who sings the tenor role of Titus with accuracy but seems to save all the passion for the recitatives.
The Met also sacrifices dramatic coherence in this Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production by dressing the cast in 18th century garb (because that's when Mozart wrote the piece, you see) regardless of the fact that the story is set in ancient Rome. This was a big fad of the 1980s, still with us, unfortunately. What should have been a grand toga party on stage instead looked like an 18th century parliamentary drama. Whatever…
Harry Bicket, an expert conductor in this repertory, had the Met orchestra in great shape. Mozart developed a special affection for the reed wind instruments in his final years, and so there are some stunning clarinet and basset horn solos, to the extent that the players, Anthony McGill and James Ognibene, are singled out as if part of the cast. I didn't hear any real weaknesses in the cast, rounded out by Barbarra Frittoli as Vitellia, Luce Crowe in a fine Met debut performance as Servilia, Kate Lindsey as Annio (another role that could well be taken by a countertenor), Oren Gradus as Publio, Titus's main advisor, and Toni Rubio in a brief walk-on as Berenice, daughter of Herod Agrippa of Judea – Titus's real love, who he quickly dispatches home to Palestine once convinced that the Roman people aren't disposed to accept a Jewish girl as their Empress.
Great sets, actually, reasonably appropriate for the period (90 AD), making the costuming even more egregiously ridiculous. (My friend in the chorus, who was able to get us discounted tickets because even the opening night of this underrated opera won't sell out, was sweltering up there in an 18th century parliamentarians whig – thus did the Met dress the members of the Roman Senate.) One gesture by the chorus drew guffaws, and if somebody with dramatic instincts is involved with this revival, one suspects a little change may be made before the repeat performances.
When I say underrated, I mean it. This is prime late Mozart, albeit without the catchy tunes of the contemporary "Magic Flute." The first act is a bit too long and studious, but the second act is full of gorgeous and dramatically effective stuff, worth the wait. I hope lots of a people discover this fine opera through this revival. But I hope that if the Met brings it back in the future, they're find a donor to underwrite period-appropriate costumes. Then I might find the production perfect. Oh, yes, they should also hire some countertenors to sing the parts of Sesto and Annio: How about a Met debut for Phillipe Jarousky??