"La Clemenza di Tito" at the RFH, I.v.05

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Stephen Jay-Taylor

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May 1, 2005, 4:11:56 PM5/1/05
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So, with little more than a month to go until the Royal Festival Hall's
closure, and no possibility of the La Scala Philharmonic under Muti turning
up on 27th May as originally scheduled, it falls to the Zürich Opera to have
the honour of being the last foreign band to be heard there. An honour they
richly deserve, notwithstanding any reservations I might have had about the
actual performance itself. First, the good news : Vasilena Smearedallova
cancelled ; Sesto was sung by Susan Graham instead, yippeee! ( making, I'm
pretty certain, her house debut in the process, but since we're now
officially third-world, no-one in the administration knew for sure, or could
be bothered to find out.) The 58-strong chorus and (much reduced, with
valveless brass and skin timps) orchestra acquitted themselves with their
customary vigour and precision. Jonas Kaufmann sang Tito. Welser-Möst
conducted with his usual keen sense of dramatic pace and theatrical flair
( and is, besides, the most sinuously graceful and suavely supple performer
to watch.)

The bad news was the unannounced and, in my experience, unprecedented,
wholesale dumping of the recitatives in favour of Italian dialogue, thereby
creating an entirely new operatic genre : Italian opera seria singspiel. It
was dreadful, and killed such dramatic momentum as the work has stone dead
from the outset, reducing it to a string of arias punctuated by unconvincing
speech. ( I know the recits aren't by Mozart, but Süssmayr's work is largely
indistinguishable, as witness the never-resolved issue of the division of
hands in the Requiem. And if you dislike them that much, do what
Glyndebourne did and commission new ones.)

In between were the overparted Eva Mei, who predictably found Vitellia's
tessitura too low, and who in any case lacks the necessary spitfire
temperament for the role, but nevertheless gave a secure and shapely account
of it ( though she was thoroughly upstaged in "Non piu di fiori" by the
stunning basset-horn accompagnato of , I think, Robert Pickup.) Hana
Minutillo deputised for Lileana Nikiteanu as Annio - presumably catching the
same Eurostar as Graham : they're both in the upcoming Palais Garnier cast -
and gave a somewhat shrill, if powerful performance of the thankless role.
Günther Groissböck made a fine Publio, without sounding anywhere near his
best.

About Kaufmann's Tito, I'm in two minds. He's got a strange stage
demeanour - noted at the "Poppea" earlier this year - strung out somewhere
between the smug and the physically ill-at-ease, which doesn't help. His
coloratura is no more than tolerable. The voice is generally slow to "speak"
as a result of which he only comes into his own in passages of slower-moving
declamation. And the basic timbre is surprisingly baritonal. On the other
hand, it is without doubt the most thrillingly VIRILE sound I've heard since
Vickers, and a real hall-filler, and if not exactly seductive then certainly
very sexy. I think he's fast outgrowing Mozart and should be looking to
Wagner ( honestly ! ) for his future glory, where he may just turn out to be
the answer to a lot of prayers.

Of course, the finest element on display was Graham, ironically not even
supposed to be there. Karsarova sang Sesto at Covent Garden three years ago
( with Frittoli, oddly mere as Vitellia, Bruce Ford sounding like a medical
condition, and Colin Davis fast asleep in the pit ) and she wasn't up to
much even then. To get a truly great singer instead is a most unexpected bit
of good fortune, not least because La Graham sings here quite rarely now -
the ROH doesn't seem interested in offering her any new roles - and always
in my experience delivers the absolute star-turn goods : superior
everything, voice, technique, diction, involvement, drama, charisma, the
lot. "Parto, parto" was a piece of perfection - with the same, perfect
obbligato player - and, if she had a little more difficulty with "Deh, per
quest'istante", well, so has everybody else I've ever heard try ( including
dear Yvonne Minton, whom the aria would regularly crucify, night in, night
out.) I kept thinking she should be singing Vitellia rather than Mei, and
Sesto entrusted to Andreas Scholl or Bejun Mehta. Still, as it is, it'd be
worth a trip to Paris just to hear her in what is plainly her glowing prime
: it won't last at this level for ever, alas.

SJT, moving on to the Opéra de Paris' website...........


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