Monday 3 September 2018

Certainly not boring: Rolando Villazón in Mozart's La clemenza di Tito on Deutsche Grammophon

Mozart: La Clemenza di Tito - Deutsche Grammophon
Mozart La clemenza di Tito; Rolando Villazón, Marina Rebeka, Joyce DiDonato, Tara Erraught, Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Yannick Nézet-Séguin; Deutsche Grammophon Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 3 Sept 2018 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
A strong cast surrounds the distinctive, and problematic, account of the title role from Villazón.

This is the fifth of Deutsche Grammophon's project to record the major Mozart operas with Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting the Chamber Orchestra of Europe recording live in concert at Baden Baden, all with Rolando Villazón singing the leading tenor role. So for this recording of Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito Villazón sings Tito, with Marina Rebeka as Vitellia, Joyce DiDonato as Sesto, Tara Erraught as Annio, Regula Mühlemann as Servilia and Adam Plachetka as Publio.

Mozart's final serious opera languished rather longer in the archives than his others but his remarkable re-invention of the opera seria form has now developed quite a considerable life and there are a number of fine recordings out there ranging from period to modern instrument. On this disc, Yannick Nézet-Séguin takes rather a middle way, keeping the music propulsive and lithe with engaging playing from the Chamber Orchestra of Europe including some fine solo moments, yet willing to pull the music around for expressive purposes. I am not sure, however, that Nézet-Séguin's performance really smacks of the theatre, and if there is one thing that La Clemenza di Tito needs, it is a sure dramatic hand.

There is a lot of recitative in La Clemenza di Tito (and it is probably not by Mozart, commentators suspect Süssmayr). Even cut (as here) there is plenty to go at, yet the singers, on the whole, tend to make rather a meal of it. [An example of how to make recitative work (albeit in Handel) dramatically has been given by Lawrence Cummings and his Göttingen Handel Festival forces where their series of live recordings of Handel's opera seria have been notable for the speed, vividness and propulsion of the drama in the recitative, really grabbing you and taking you along.] Here the characters have a tendency to dwell, shaping individual words and phrases expressively, yet in a way which holds up the drama. If you relish the idea of Joyce DiDonato savouring every word, then this style is for you, but if you long for the drama to move then you may find it a bit slow.

The great set-pieces are well done, and if you consider only 'Parto, parto', 'No piu di fiori' and the Act One Trio, then there is much to enjoy on this disc. Yet, La Clemenza di Tito is very much about the title role.
Tito gets a series of arias which operate on a different dramatic plane to the other characters, and I have heard a number of performances of this opera where Tito comes over as beautifully sung, but boring. Certainly, Rolando Villazón is never boring on this disc. He slides around the notes, bending pitch expressively and uses a dramatic style which would not come amiss in late 19th and early 20th-century Italian opera. Stylistically he stands out from the rest of the cast, but this can be argued as a good thing dramatically. It is a performance that I could probably live with, once, in a live staging but not one that I want to return to in a CD recording, the mismatch between Villazón's Verismo style and Mozart's music is just too great for me.

The challenge of the role of Vitellia is a different one, the technical demands are huge as it has a range of over two octaves; most of the role is written for a soprano yet the final rondo 'Non piu di fiori' seems to fit mezzo-range better and some commentators suspect Mozart of re-using material. The result is that Vitellia tends to be sung by a dramatic soprano, with a convincing lower register, or by some brave mezzo-sopranos (Janet Baker and Della Jones have both recorded it, and Alice Coote sang the role at Glyndebourne in 2017). Latvian spinto soprano, Marina Rebeka brings real drama and power to the role, she attacks it with spinto relish yet is able to scale back to blend beautifully in the duets, and sing the passage-work cleanly. It is not the most seductive performance, but there is great power and attraction here, and she crowns it with a fine account of 'Non piu di fiori' (only the very lowest notes sound a little forced).

Both Marina Rebeka and Joyce DiDonato show themselves willing to push and pull the music about for expressive purposes, in a way which can seem a bit anachronistic in a performance which owes something to period style. DiDonato makes a powerful and expressive Sesto, how could she not, and her opening aria 'Parto, parto', with its glorious basset-clarinet solo, is a strongly passionate statement but you have to accept that DiDonato will slow to relish individual phrases and make the moment more important than the overall structure.

The secondary couple, Annio and Servilia, are performed by Tara Erraught and Regula Mühlemann in a clean-limbed modern manner, without the expressive rubatos of Rebeka and DiDonato. Yet both Erraught and Mühlemann capture their characters. Erraught shows that singing with classical style can be characterfully expressive. This is a role which expresses itself very much in dialogue with others, and Erraught makes the character really count. Mühlemann is wonderfully sweet and pitch-perfect as Servilia.

Adam Plachetka is highly characterful as Publio, and stylistically he seems to match Villazón so that the opera seems to divide into pairs, each one taking a slightly different journey towards making Mozart's music expressive.

But it is Villazón that will probably make or break this recording for you. It is certainly not a boring performance, and as Villazón is surrounded by a strong and characterful cast, there is much to enjoy on the disc if his Verismo-esque approach to Mozart appeals.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart () - La Clemeza di Tito
Tito - Rolando Villazón
Vitellia -  Marina Rebeka
Sesto - Joyce DiDonato
Annio - Tara Erraught
Servilia -  Regina Mühlemann
Publio - Adam Plachetka
RIAS Kammerchor
Chamber Orchestra of Europe
Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor)
Recorded live at Baden Baden
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 0289 483 5210 2CDS [69:08, 71.28]
Available from Amazon.

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