Così fan tutte (ROH, 22 September 2016)

It was a very curious night. It contained curiosity, boredom, amusement, frustration, appreciation… The biggest culprit was Bychkov. Per pieta, Mr., LET’S.MOVE.ON! You know I normally like my Mozart not too fast but Jesus Christ on a pogo stick, Per pietà was excrutiating. It felt like it lasted about 2 months longer than it should. I know it’s supposed to be slow but I’m sure not THAT slow. The last time I got bored during Mozart was when Villazon sang Mio bel tesoro. It wasn’t Winters’ fault. She is a good singer and worked with what Maestro gave her, which was cruel and unusual. That being said, the versions on youtube vary quite alarmingly in length, so perhaps Bychkov isn’t the only one who likes to roast his Fiordiligis.

Fiordiligi: Corinne Winters
Dorabella: Angela Brower
Ferrando: Daniel Behle
Guglielmo: Alessio Arduini
Despina: Sabina Puértolas
Don Alfonso: Johannes Martin Kränzle
Conductor: Semyon Bychkov | Orchestra and Choir of the ROH
Director: Jan Philipp Gloger

His tempi were super slow throughout. We were forewarned by the early start time (6:45pm). His conducting, in my opinion, wasn’t necessary heavy (which I feared) – though it wasn’t light either, so if he decides to conduct Tito we might still get heavier voices – so not necessary heavy as much as lacking in that quicksilver touch necessary for Mozart. It felt somewhat middle-aged, as if reacting a second (or two) too late to the joke.

Now I know that a very important thing about Così is it’s not simply a comedy. There is a surprising amount of pshychology being explored. There is darkness and moments of realisation that make us pause. But not THAT long. So in Bychkov’s defense, yes, we did pause and we did think of the implications of what was happening. But it would’ve been nice to have some tunes with that as well, because – perhaps in a clumsy effort at presenting detail – we had, here and there, a random instrument stick out for no apparent purpose, sometimes after pregnant silences.

But since there will be much ranting ahead, let me first talk about the best bit, vocally. It was Ferrando’s Un’aura amorosa. I had never heard Behle before, but I can see why ROH has booked him quite a bit. He sang most of it softly and carried on from p to ppp outstandingly. Bychkov eventually had him throw in some marked contrast, which I thought was unnecessary and broke the atmosphere. It felt like going from pppp to FF within the same aria, which is something I doubt Mozart wrote. But those ppps were exemplary, hands down the best singing of the evening. Also, a lovely voice.

A word to the now reoccuring booers at Mozart productions: do you realise how difficult it is to get Così right? Very. Just check the recent Aix production and weep in horror. The ROH production did very well with the tricky makebelieve issue. There’s a lot to it, but I will give you just one example: Fiordiligi sings that exhausting Per pieta on a stage within the opera which Don Alfonso has concocted for the purpose of seducing the ladies. It’s a typical 18th century bucolic tableau (woods, stream etc.) – though the production is set nowadays. Whilst she realises she’s not exactly a one night stand kinda girl, all the bucolic elements start to disappear. Later on, after having found out about Dorabella’s betrayal, Ferrando sings of his sorrow on the now deserted stage within the opera. All this is ace. There’s a lot of pretense but there are also real feelings seeping through the pretense.

Another thing seeing it in the house made me realise is that it’s not just love and sex being discussed here. It’s also friendship, with the lovely warmth and easy camaraderie as well as its pitfalls of peer pressure, competition, losing face, feeling like a stick-in-the-mud. This was well carried over by the singers/production.

But although I was pleased with the general idea of the production, certain details didn’t pan out very well. For instance, I felt all of Dorabella’s scenes were misses. I don’t know why it’s so difficult. The woman is a ditz and she’s simple. Really, there isn’t much more to it. Fiordiligi is the brains of the operation, such as it is (she’s no Harvard material either but at least she has a conscience). Dorabella is lovable in her naivete, you know she doesn’t mean to cause harm; she just can’t help herself.

Well, what do you do with Smanie implacabili!!!? You pretty much have her throw a tantrum. Here it felt like they didn’t know what to do with Brower for most of the aria. The ending, when she gets on the table and finally has everyone’s attention, tries to be sexy and feels a bit self conscious was good. But leading up to that they just had her flail her arms about with no particular purpose in mind. There was also no purpose to the singing as far as I was aware.

My benchmark Smanie is Nikiteanu’s from way back when in Zurich. The woman just knows how to do ditz, tantrums, hormones and comedy in general. She might not be the most suavely detailed singer out there, but you sure can follow purpose in her singing (check it out). With Bower’s I just couldn’t feel any dramatic detail, the lines were just pushed out randomly and if you didn’t know the aria beforehand you probably thought she was just shouting unintelligibly.

I think it’s quite obvious I had a big problem with Brower’s Dorabella through the night. I know this is her debut at the ROH but I think it’s a mistake. She needs to bring another role pronto on this stage and forget all about this one. I don’t want to sound like a(ny more of a) horrible person, but is she really a mezzo? Because between her and Winters, and especially in their duets, I could’ve been fooled by who was the mezzo and who was the soprano. Maybe it’s part of this Così switcheroo thing… My other encounter with her was Annio in that Cirque du Soleil Tito from Munich (2014) and I liked her there. But Annio is a bright, high lying role. Stick with Annio, lady.

Because, what happened to E amore un ladroncello? Sigh. I love that aria; it’s of the same sort as Se l’augellin sen fugge, cute and silly. Who knew cute was difficult to do? Apparently it is and it’s a mystery to Bychkov as well. Check out Ziegler’s fantastic acting under Ponnelle’s guidance (hey, I don’t just bitch about the man!). That’s the essence of Dorabella and there’s the quicksilver non so che I was talking about earlier. Notice I am giving you Harnoncourt conducted Cosis so you can’t fault me for comparing slow with fast. And that’s a mezzo voice.

I don’t care how dark you want to go (and this time it wasn’t that dark), Dorabella is the comic relief, always. She’s more lighthearted than all the others. Another thing I noticed was that the men were a lot more clearly differentiated in their personalities from the getgo. For quite a while both women seemed very similar. I think you can start to have them react in their own way right from the start, have Dorabella a little more interested in what Despina says instead of all of a sudden say she has already made up her mind about the brunet. Like, where did that come from? Dorabella had an independant thought?!

In spite of all this, I did appreciate the last scene here – Dorabella really wants Guglielmo now and they need to pull her off him. That was good and Brower was funny and even a bit clumsy. Too little, too late, though.

Winters as Fiordiligi was consistently good. She has an alluring fullness to her voice, with a good middle and quite a bit of power, well focused, very good range. I don’t know that it’s a Mozart voice, but there is agility for those jumps in Come scoglio. She didn’t wow me like Behle but was possibly more consistent than him. It’s fun that Fiordiligi’s ethos is that of an opera seria primadonna. She’s the one who struggles most with this love/duty dichotomy. I’m not sure that her arc was as well resolved here as Dorabella’s. It’s really difficult to overcome that devotion to duty in world of much looser morals than that of opera seria.

The others were fine. I’m not sure I quite get Puértolas or – for all my love for a good snarkfest – could ever reach Despina levels of cynicism (probably a good thing) but she seemed to enjoy herself a lot. Arduini sounds exactly as you would expect Guglielmo to sound, no more, no less. Kränzle had the level of charisma needed to run the farce and not come off completely detestable. In fact, Don Alfonoso merely appeared reasonable in this production.

Since this is an opera where people interact closely a lot, you might wonder why I didn’t say anything about the ensembles. Well, aside from Soave sia il vento, where Bychkov’s and my sensibility momentarily met – and the singers blended worth the stage they were singing on – the others didn’t particularly stay with me, though I think the Act I finale felt hectic. Did you notice there are a lot of arias/duets/ensembles about the wind in Mozart?

So let me conclude by saying it was a funny evening; I and the rest of the audience laughed often (it helps that it’s a snarky libretto). But a long one, too. Normally I like to take a stroll after the opera but tonight I wanted to go straight home and bitch about it😉 If you’re not put off by the writeup, the production is still running or you can check it out at the cinema next month. But I’d wait for the more accessible places for a look at the production.

Hasse’s Demetrio (Cadogan Hall, 21 September 2016)

demetriohasseOlinto: Ray Chenez
Cleonice: Erica Eloff
Alcestes (Demetrio): Michael Taylor
Fenicio: Rupert Charlesworth
Barsene: Ciara Hendrick
Mithranes: Augusta Hebbert
Conductor: Leo Duarte | Opera Settecento

Opera Settecento’s latest offering is Hasse’s Demetrio, on a libretto by the indefatigable Metastasio. They were the dreamteam of the (early) 18th century opera and solidified the basis of that young-ish art form in general.

This wasn’t one of their best efforts. Sure, the lofty ideals of the Enlightenment shine through, as the opera starts with a strong feminist-friendly recit. Queen Cleonice of Syria asserts that women are as capable of ruling as men, citing other examples from around the Ancient World. Of course this is tempered a bit by her accepting the necessity of finding a husband. At least she is allowed to choose one. More or less. But it was written in 1732 so the thought counts. Then there’s her musing about the possibility of the world accepting a brave and patriotic shepherd (Alceste) as king instead of a self-entitled aristocrat (Olinto). The fact that she does not know Alceste’s identity until the end speaks well in her favour. Though it isn’t completely clear if the only reason she’s not prejudiced is because she is smitten with love, you see. But again, the thought counts. You’re a good man, Mr. Metastasio.

The libretto also offers us something like 10 storm arias, which you all know I love beyond all else. Then there’s the animal simile arias (everything from lions to turtle-doves is mentioned. Or was that a turtle? Why is it called a turtledove in the first place? It looks nothing like one. The eggplant effect?) and plant similes. Like I said, I’m fine with the libretto.

It’s the music that lets it down a bit. Though I have noticed a few interesting things Hasse did. In the first Barsene aria there is a wicked rhythm that gives the harpsichord the opportunity of going to town. I found myself following it with gusto rather than the vocal line (though I liked Hendrick’s singing a lot – when I could hear it! For whatever reason she chose to sing rather quietly most of the time).

Then there’s a neat trick that you (or at least I) don’t often hear in Baroque opera: a sung response to a recit. This came after the intermission, when the Queen was asking Mithranes why – apprently – Alceste did not want to talk to her anymore. Without further ado Mithranes launches into a jaunty answer-aria that reminded me a lot of Atalanta’s humorous Dirà che amor per me (you know the one that reoccurs a few times during Atalanta’s conversation with Serse about Arsamene). There really should be more of these, because science tells us that people remember messages better if they hear them sung😉

Another thing was the arioso/duettoso between Cleonice and Alceste when they think (or she thinks) they need to do the right thing and split because he’s a plebeian. It wasn’t the best thing I’ve ever heard (could’ve used a lot more orchestral variety – says I, from my 21st century armchair) but you could tell Hasse tried to make the moment specifically angsty.

Then you had the arias themselves. In this opera it’s the baddie – Olinto (what kind of antagonist name is that?!) – who gets to bring down the house. He has the foot-stomping horn arias. I’ll say Hasse did very nice in these instances and gave Chenez the opportunity to rock out to the delight of the (otherwise rather unjustly reserved) audience. Chenez has very good stage presence though he’s very slight. I got a kick out of his proper piercing squillo and enjoyed his very free coloratura and solid breath. I hope he comes back for more of the same🙂

With such a brat character to the forefront, Alceste/Demetrio’s only chance was to play it cool, relaxed and amorous, which Taylor did. Also, absent the badass arias, he chose to go for the chest register once or twice. This brings me to the question: when countertenors go for the chest register, are they tenors1? Either way, Taylor was pretty good at it and also quite nice in the duettoso with Eloff.

Eloff herself was once more the duty/love torn queen. She’s good at these roles, she has the regal bearing for them, both vocally and physically but these virtuously hearbroken roles aren’t giving her the opportunity to rock out and make the audience worship her excellent coloratura chops. By the end even in spite of some impressive manipulation of vocal dynamics up and down the range, ppp and ffff, the audience still wanted more horns and more stomping.

Hendrick and Hebbert were also good. Hendrick had the advantage of some rather snarky lines – her character is scheming to get Alceste but all falls apart because he couldn’t care less (and she’s the second soprano, what was she thinking?).

At the beginning, Cleonice, pining for her lover, asks whistfully: Have you heard anything from Alceste? Which is meant to be taken as “Comfort me, Barsene!” Well, Barsene takes her at face value: Don’t be stupid, Cleonice, Alceste is dead. Focus on your other suitors.

As per opera seria, the second soprano is supposed to love someone and be loved by a third character, with whom she usually couples up by the end. In this case it was Mithranes who was interested. He says so, Barsene has an aria along the lines of “How sweet! Though you’re not my type I believe your feelings for me are genuine. How does the friendzone sound to you?” His answer seems to be a cheerful “Oh, well”, and that, dear reader, is the last we hear of this matter. Eh?? How odd. I bet you there were cuts. Anyway, I remember some good work with phrasing and a lovely tone from Hendrick.

Although Mithranes had countless of single recit lines of the “Here he is, My Queen!” variety, Hebbert also got to sing 2 arias and did very well with them. Both asked for a good middle and easy-flow ventures into the top notes, both of which she had.

I guess Hasse wasn’t interested in basses because the wise father figure in Demetrio is sung by a tenor. It was a bit funny imagining Charlesworth as Olinto and Alceste’s dad but he did good chiding Olinto, praising Alceste and worrying that his – benevolent – scheming might backfire. Fenicio is the only one who knows Alceste’s true identity, as the previous Demetrio left the child in his care. He had a couple (or more) of those alarmed helmsman in a storm arias and sung well, though Hasse short-changed him a bit along the way (the first aria was rocking and the first of the night that got applause).

I was very pleased with the level of singing, there were no weak links. The singers seemed to have a good time and were dressed more casually than usual (aside from Olinto, but he’s stuck up). The general atmosphere was very congenial, though I must say Hasse doesn’t bring people in the yard as much as others do. Lucky for me as I upgraded to a spot in the centre of the auditorium. Cadogan Hall is a bit cold at this time of the year even though I was rather overdressed for the tube. All in all, a good welcome back to live opera for me, after my (gasp) monthlong hiatus.


  1. This question was half-amusingly debated on an (at least one) episode of the Opera Now! podcast which I found via Jennifer Rivera’s blog, during my recent raids into the past (no pillaging). For some interesting Baroque banter (and the countertenor/tenor bit) you should listen from about 1hr into the podcast. 

2003 Salzburg Tito: a change of perspective

Sometimes you can’t write/talk about something because you don’t feel anything about it. Other times it’s because you feel too much. But we change.

When I first saw the 2003 Salzburg Tito I actually wrote (longhand!) extensively about it. It’s so gushy and intrinsicly linked to the period of intense change I was going through that it’s not fit for a blog. I waited for the emotion to cool down but during the next stage no words were good enough. I think I was trying for objectivity and when that didn’t quite work I left it be. It’s been well documented by other bloggers so I didn’t feel depriving the world of my positive opinion on it was such a big loss. At lon last I wrote about the 2006 revival (audio only), which was less commented on. Same production but not the same. Yet it offered me enough distance to say something.

Recently I noticed a change.

I still love it but, after hearing a lot of more recent versions, often with period orchestras, there’s no doubt it’s very heavy of sound (quite understandably so, with the Vienna Philharmonic of 13 years ago in the pit of the hangar-like Felsenreitschule driving everything). For a long time I could not hear that, enamoured as I have been of everything it contained. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing that it’s heavy and slow; Tito needs a bit of gravitas; it makes sense with the venue setting and the production; the world was starting to change but it still had a solidity about it we might not be feeling anymore today. As a whole it’s got so much that is good and unique about it (those sweaty (with unease), partially painted pale green walls😉 ) that it still feels as fresh as it did on day one. But the way things are going, the future great Sesto and Vitellia will sing a lot lighter. And, I venture to say, in a smaller venue.

The cheerful awfulness of the Italian Singer

Preface

R. Strauss is very exciting and “PoMo” (for his time) but there’s a hell of a lot to absorb when you (by which I mean someone without musical education) first start listening to his music; especially if you’re coming from the very clear and neatly structured Baroque end of the music spectrum. His music is like a wall of sound crashing down on you from all sides, many layers of intricate lines now converging, now juxtaposed, styles put in a blender set on high. You feel alone at sea (un mar turbato, of course), there are 3 hours until the happy ending and your brain is already that little boat smashing against the rocks of too-clever musical writing with which you have no hope of keeping up1.

Clueless (but sincere and eager) novice opera lover: I think I like it but hell if I could say why or indeed if I like it at all… but it’s kinda cool…

It’s very useful to develop a well rounded idea about his music and the libretti he used if you want to – eventually – get the most out of it. Unless you’re one of those strange people who goes with their gut instead of over analysing everything (but then why are you reading blogs?😉 ) before deciding if they like something.

This is the reason why though I like virtually all the R. Strauss stuff I’ve heard, I very rarely write anything about it. I have learned enough to appreciate most of his wit and in-jokes but I may never be comfortable enough to express myself intelligently about it all. The first paragraph of this post is the result of a few years’ listening with an open mind and much reading, because there are others who are knowledgeable enough to ‘splain it to all of us alarmed helmsmen and helmswomen2😉

The Italian Singer

So, the Italian Singer, right – from Der Rosenkavalier. Imagine the Clueless novice opera lover first coming across this one’s sole aria.

Does the singing go with my hairstyle?

Clueless novice (now very serious, because s/he wants to grasp as much as s/he can): So I’m listening to Post-Romantic opera from the 20th century which is set in the 1740s’ Vienna and is based on Mozart/DaPonte/Beaumarchais’ Le nozze di Figaro from the 1780s – did I get my references right? – when all of a sudden, among orphans and dog trainers – don’t ask, I’ve yet to digest those details -, this opera singer within the opera shows up and starts belting out… right? Right.

…like, what?

He sounds sort of belcanto but the lyrics are all about fighting love which is kinda Baroque – am I still on, reference-wise? – but what’s the point of it all because he’s, well, awful…? Am I allowed to say that? Lack of musical education and all – but that’s kinda how I hear it. No, don’t ask me to tell you what’s wrong, I just know something’s wrong .” (the little boat smashes against another jutting rock)

This is the point where Clueless novice needs to be referred to two – yes, not just one, two – further readings. One is about the Baroque Singer in All His/Her Glory and the other is about another R. Strauss opera – remember his PoMo-ness? Self referencing is so on – which, though written later, explains so much about the in-jokes in this one.

  1. In layman’s terms, the Baroque Singer in Excelsis is a bit ridiculous and thus easy to make fun of. He both genuinely loves to sing – loves music – and is in love with his own singing/high notes.
  2. From getting acquainted with Ariadne auf Naxos, Clueless novice learns that R. Strauss and buddy Hofmannsthal were fond of making fun of the music profession.

These are the kind of people who can distance themselves from it all and have a good laugh about it (though I don’t think it’s a mean laugh, but a laugh nonetheless) – unlike the Italian Singer (but he has a plight and they do support it a few years later when they revisit and expand on the subject).

Clueless novice also learns that Ariadne auf Naxos, like Le nozze di Figaro, was inspired by a French play3, though this one’s libretto does not follow the play per se. Instead it picks up a secondary thread and runs with it in a very original manner. But all that the Clueless novice wanting to understand the reason why R. Strauss gave us the Italian Singer needs to know is that the main characters in Ariadne auf Naxos are the equivalent of the Italian Singer. Yes, he and Hofmannsthal referenced a play then referenced themselves referencing Beaumarchais et all as well…

Maybe – but this is pure theory now – Strauss and Hofmannsthal were also hinting at the general reception and function of art in society, and this view is more depressing. – Lankin <- click me! The Italian Singer needs your attention

I fully subscribe to that theory! Following up Der Rosenkavalier with Ariadne confirms this. Anybody who’s been involved in the arts – especially the more commercial side of it – knows things haven’t changed much. Which is why Ariadne (and the Komponist) has a very special place in my heart.

So if you’re still with me after all this rambling I really did not realise I had in me😉 I point you to above quoted Lankin’s brilliantly clear and detailed dissection of the Italian Singer via his very aria. You (the now much wiser Clueless novice opera lover) will love R. Strauss that much more for his attention to detail.


  1. And some people still wonder if ha-ha-ha coloratura is ever warranted! Hells yea, when your character is inhaling mouthfuls of algae-infested seawater! 
  2. That’s my translation of a favourite Baroque image: ‘l nocchiero spaventato (from Griselda‘s Agitata da due venti or Tossed around by two twenties😉 ). Strauss is clearly parodying this type of typical (Italian) Baroque aria, where love’s sudden and disturbing effect on one’s emotions’ is compared to a storm at sea. 
  3. Truly a great play, Le bourgeois gentilhomme

Hasse for London/UK Baroque lovers

Hasse’s Demetrio (from the always interesting Opera Settecento) is coming up at Cadogan Hall in a couple of days. There are still tickets for those interested. Bring a cushion if you choose the gallery pews (they are pews).

Fluid Semiramide at the 2016 Proms

Again catching up with my links of interest. I didn’t intend to write about this (because it’s so long and I only had 2 1/2hrs set out for it), all I wanted was to casually listen to it whilst sewing a curtain for the kitchen (as you do).

But I was soon very impressed with how Mark Elder handled the score. He kept it light and clear and flowing though the tempi weren’t particularly speedy. His cast was very well chosen for Rossini, with – aside from the main ladies who were known quantities to me and of which Barcellona is a current staple in Rossini contralto roles – an excellent Assur in Mirko Palazzi and a pretty neat Idreno in Barry Banks.

I don’t reccommend the interval chat (more of an intro to Rossini’s Semiramide pre-recorded chat), because the two talkers say little of any importance. On top of that, one of them has the horrible old skool habit of calling everything enormous (the scale of the opera, the length of the acts, the difficulty of the title role etc.) and the other’s speech is riddled with irksome parasites such as “sort of” and “if you like”. I sort of didn’t like it.

I don’t yet know if they finished as well as they started but it seems a very good choice for anyone who wants a contemporary take on Semiramide. Opera Rara with Elder/Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and this very cast (= the same team) have actually just finished recording it UNCUT so you’ll get to hear it in all its 4hrs+ glory as soon as they sort it out.

Edit 16/09/16: finally finished it! Very good stuff. I’m now curious how the recording will be, comparatively.

In Bach’s defense (Ich habe genug)

I’ve been catching up with my own recommendations and it was time to visit Gerhaher’s Proms 2016 take on Bach’s Ich habe genug. I liked it so much I listened to it twice in a row. So there you go, there is hope yet😉

Edit: at some point the Proms link might go flat, so I thought I’d bump thadieu’s link to Stutzmann’s take on it for all of us contralto fans and because it’s wonderful in general:

The 225th La clemenza di Tito Day

Tito relaxes after a long day of scoffing at foiled assassination plots

This year for Tito Day I’d like to steer you, gentle reader, towards someone else’s writings/experiences.

Have you ever wondered how it is to sing Sesto?

I mean the whole exprience of it, not just picking up the score and trying to hit the notes whilst also interacting with a bunch of other costumed people on stage. Some of you have probably read this account as it’s old (by blogger standards) enough to have achieved cult status but it’s still as entertaining as ever. We Titoheads are extremely lucky to have someone with first hand experience detail the process in such a hilarious manner.

Without further ado, head over to sestissimo1 and scroll, for a month long account of the glamourous fabulous life of the contemporary opera singer during a production2 of La clemenza di Tito.


  1. Yes, it’s mezzo Jennifer Rivera’s old blog. I think she migrated it to her main site but I liked the vintage air and the fact that it’s so Sestoriented. 
  2. If you want to know the audience’s opinion of the (rather handsome) Graham Vick 2008 Torino production of Tito she’s talking about, check out this account. You can also watch the 30min Prima della Prima documentary of this production on ‘zetube. 

Harnoncourt lives on

It’s been 6 months now since the trickster has left us. In case you haven’t come across it, here’s a great BBC3 interview with Harnoncourt from 2012. It gives you a very rounded idea about him as an artist (and person).

One of the things he touches on that has given me food for thought is how a work of art has a life of its own, it’s not bound by its physical barriers. Its identity as a dialogue between the artist and his/her audience is more important. As such it changes as the audience changes. He postulates that Die Zauberflote of today is not the same as Die Zauberflote of 1791.

It was interesting how on the one hand he wanted us to forget 19th century concepts of listening to music written before that time whilst at the same time acknowledging that we as 21st century audiences have accumulated that experience – all that has come after 1800 – and thus can’t receive art quite as people did in the 1700s. Sounds like a bit of a contradiction.

Though what he probably means is that we can’t roll our eyes at 18th century opera seria for being written according to a set formula of recit/aria/recit but rather take it on its own merits.

He also says that the greatest works of art from the past are always relevant. Of course, they define civilisations. This is more evident today when there’s a lot of anguish and rethinking in regards to European Civilisation. There is a good possibility that in the not so distant future “the Western” way of thinking won’t be the default view of the globalised world. What then? It’s quite disconcerting as a European to imagine this. Will Mozart and Monteverdi be encapsuled as common world heritage in the same way cave paintings of Summerian or Egyptian art was, or will they be forgotten?

Tito in Minnesota (2002)

This May I came across a brand new – to me, of course – performance with one of my favourites in the title role – Bruce Ford. It’s from earlier in the same year he’d sung Tito at ROH. I liked that turn of his so much I wanted to hear this as well.

Back in May I started with Act I like most would then got distracted by shiny things and I returned to it yesterday via Act II. I surprised myself by finishing it in a couple of hours. But then there was half of Act I left to go and mum was itching to chat and since she’s feeding me I thought it wiser to put the laptop away.

Tito: Bruce Ford
Vitellia: Brenda Harris
Sesto: Susanne Mentzer
Annio: Lori Kaye Miller
Servilia: Anna Rodriguez
Publio: Alfred Walker
Conductor: Harry Bicket | Orchestra and Chorus of the Minnesota Opera

live relay 26 January 2002 / stage direction by Stephen Lawless

Now in spite of Ford, Mentzer and Bicket, this is not a big house performance, so it’s wiser not to let one’s expectations run wild.

Overture: yes

Ma che, sempre l’istesso: Harris darkens her recit voice for some reason, not to particularly pleasant results. She is rather whiny than dominant and there’s some adjusting she seems to be going through, like she’s trying to overcome a cold. It’s one of those rare times where Sesto sounds the more forceful in this recit. E pur non hai cor d’aquistar me! doesn’t have the disdainful edge it should.

Come ti piace imponi: perhaps Mentzer is a bit past it (matronly) though there are occasional beautiful moments. Harris gets closer to the Vitellia we expect for her intrance. Her voice sounds better than in the recit. They mix rather well in the mille affetti bit.

Annio drops by: he darkens too; Miller’s diction is a bit iffy (potato).

Deh, se piacer mi vuoi: the orchestra is very competent, the tempo not bad. Harris has the right idea about this and does a lot of things with it (her chief means of characterisation are aptly placed trills, generally accurately executed) but the taste/style is sometimes questionable. This aria shows off her voice up and down, and though agile, I don’t find it a beautiful instrument. In conclusion, it’s not without merit, more interesting than I expected it. She gets deserved applause.

Deh, prendi un dolce amplesso: soulful, energetic, believeable friends.

March/Serbate: good pace, orchestra continues to sound good. The choir seems tiny but is well drilled though more legato would’ve been nice.

Loot talk: proper bass voice for Walker. Both he and Miller declame. Bruce sounds a bit tired here but noble and gentle as usual in this scene. The entire description of the act of god is allowed. As the two sycophants marvel he whooshes everyone out sounding like he abhores the idea of too much emphasis placed on his goodness.

March reprise: imperial

Annio : Sesto : Tito: Annio sounds more alarmed than usual, Sesto more ready to bite the bullet, though he seems to have a lump in his throat. Dry hall? Tito is ready to share his deep heartbreak over Berenice but catches himself and returns to his noble Emperor stance. Nice continuo accent on just after he lets on that he’s decided to marry Servilia. Miller runs breahtlessly through the part of the recit where Annio says me and Sesto go way back, he’s too overcome with gratitude at your generosity and in fact I myself can’t think of a better Empress than Servilia. Tito’s heart swells to hear his friend is so noble and Bruce continues with his noble self about how only the best is good enough for his BFF.

It’s hard for Tito to reconcile duty with his personal life, where he wants to be generous but there’s only so much he can do (Berenice had to go due to unpopular sentiment (xenophobia) and he can’t very well marry Sesto or make him co-Emperor if he doesn’t want to apear corrupt). But we all know he’s a lover at heart and do-gooders have a hard time in positions of power. This moment is closely linked to the Act II finale, where Tito finally understands that the private and public life can’t be balanced.

Del piu sublime soglio:  tutto e tormento il resto = foreshadowing. Maestro supports Ford and he goes for wistfulness and gentle sentiment.

Annio : Servilia: Annio is a bit whingy on his own but holds his own when his girlfriend shows up. She sounds more regal-ish than girly but then they both end up alarmed which is all right.

Deh perdona il primo affetto: Miller and Rodriguez matched well but I thought Annio and Servilia were still alarmed rather than lost in their giddy love for each other.

Tito : Publio : Servilia: Tito is disgusted by the idea of punishment. Publio sounds reasonable. Tito is distracted by cute Servilia. She seems to just stroll in and Tito waves Publio off. The two talk like normal people would – sort of like if I walked into my boss’s office and said “hey, boss, can you tack on an extra week to my holiday because I’m having too much fun with mum’s food?” And he’s like “why, yes! Thank you, dehggi, for showing me the importance of family!”

Ah se fosse intorno al trono: very quick on its feet, the bassoon champ. The tone is a bit stuffed but as soon as Ford starts my ears latch on to his tone. As we know, his Tito is so genuinely good-natured, he sounds touched rather than happy. His rapport with Bicket/the orchestra is very good. They manage to add a bit of rubato, just enough. Bicket’s take (in this performance in general) is very efficient; things are kept moving and there’s only enough detail emphasised to make things pop up.

Servilia : Vitellia: no sooner does Bicket drop the baton that Servilia announces how lucky she is. Vitellia pops from around her column, throws herself at her sovereign‘s feet and does impressive(ly) fake grovelling. Hey, it should be done more often this way. It’s on the brink of humourous. Coupled with better phrasing it’d be ace. Rodriguez hasn’t made up her mind how Servilia should respond so she continues down the regal-ish road. The pianoforte finishes she scene with a flourish.

pre-Parto recit: Vitellia is annoyed but not hell hath no fury-style. She’s more foot-stomping mad. I’m still iffy about some of it, as at one point the pianoforte stops and Harris lingers a moment longer as if she’s forgot the next line, but the way she says Bbberenice!!! is hilariously irked. That Berenice, the bane of my existence!!!! And then we get to trema, ingrato! where the fake grovelling, foot-stompiness and the thought of the annoying Berenice come together. Classy it ain’t but it’s definitely a valid way to treat this moment and it comes off better than the similar take from Fiesole.

That’s when reserved Sesto shows up. Vitellia switches over seamlessly, cornering him with her questions. Sesto’s like …???? Harris does well here, her words are dripping with irony. Even so, this Sesto isn’t as horny as others. He sounds very reasonable still so she has to calm down considerably and offer him a lot of reasons to do what she’s asking.

Eventually Sesto gives in, but, judging on the vocal interaction alone, it’s not entirely clear why. It’s almost like he remembers something and decides that’s it! I’m going to do it independent of what Vitellia is saying. There are stage sounds that suggest he’s gathering his things in a hurry. Vitellia takes the opportunity and marches a deadly weapon – tears. You don’t usually hear tears in Vitellia’s voice when she says I know you’ll forget all about my revenge if Tito talks nicely to you so if you can’t do it just leave me alone once and for all!!! (sob, sob), but it works (for this Vitellia, in any case). This awakens Sesto’s chivalry (which we all love, because though he’s not a warrior he’s certainly too chivalrous for his own good).

So either he’s saying No, really, this time I am going to do it! because the first time he was gathering his things to go to his place because Vitellia was being annoying (there are several versions of this recit and I’m working with this cleaned up one) or he’s made his mind up a second time – which is entirely within character for him – or these two initially fubbed their lines and just went in circles for a short while😉 they’re pros so let’s discard this possibility for now. Thing is, Vitellia once again whinges that she can’t trust him until he starts singing. If we’re being honest, neither can we. Recits can be fun but Parto is Parto.

Parto: as I said elsewhere, I liked Parto as soon as I first heard it. As a world class procrastinator I should know the feeling when you realise you can’t reschedule some irksome/boring/unpleasant/you-just-can’t-be-arsed-to-do-it task anymore. You have to do it or else, just like the orchestral intro here suggests. So you take a deep breath, gather all your thus far elsewhere focused energy and make a half arsed start. Along the way you’re still tempted to cheat but sooner or later you summon all your strength and the ball starts rolling. Before you know it you’re working fast and efficiently and might even get lots of ovations when you’re done!

Mentzer’s Sesto sounds like an overworked civil servant who has finally made time for that folder at the bottom of the rusty cabinet and is ready to tackle whatever no one else wanted to do for the past 30 years. If you think about it, figuring out who was right during the Year of the 4 Emperors is a lot like that. Mentzer has a good deal of no-nonsense energy throughout and hits that chesty note in belta though nowhere near as sexy as VK did in 2003. Still! Not many mezzos go for the muscular take on Parto. Anyone who does is automatically in my good book. The public seemed to think along the same lines and broke into applause way before the last note rang out. It’s not the most exciting take on Sesto but it’s got its clear integrity.

Vedrai, Tito, vedrai!: Vitellia is rubbing her hands and licking her chops at the thought of sweet revenge. Harris is spot on in this recit, perplexed/stricken …Cesare!?! included. Annio and Publio rush to deliver the royal news. Annio is enthusiastic, Publio a bit hush-hush.

Vengo!…Aspettate!… Sesto!!!!: Bicket whips his crop and the orchestra starts at breakneck speed. This is without a doubt – and from the getgo – Harris’ biggest moment in the whole performance. She has the kind of voice that fits this highly contrasting trio. Her easy agility coupled with super punchy top and even a certain acidity in tone suit this to a t. For once she doesn’t have to cover to convey volume and the result is one of the best Vengos I’ve heard. Some sopranos make it work for them, others barely make it through but Harris sounds made for the high Ds and the mad leaps. The public liked it too, because they made a point of clapping even though Bicket et Co. immediately launched into the finale. Miller and Walker gave solid support.

Act I finale

Sesto’s back for his big moment. It’s not easy to imagine a civil servant assassinate an Emperor but let me assure you a paper weight can do a lot of damage in a frenzied hand. Sesto’s plea that the gods watch over Tito is, this time, the key moment, which is enough the convince us he’s a good man. So now I think this Sesto never meant to kill Tito because he was never ensnared by Vitellia. He did it because he felt sorry for her and was too chivalrous to leave her stew in her own vengeance. Even by the way he says to Annio lo sapprai… per mio rossor you can tell he’s thinking about Vitellia angry and crying because she can’t get what she wants rather than about her wiles.

Annio and Servilia once more sound alarmed, then the choir comes in, all omg! and then it’s Publio’s cue. His entrance is a bit underpowered. Harris was by now properly warmed up, so her lines were swimming with agility once more and she met her cues very well. Sesto and Vitellia’s connection came off stronger than before. As the Noir Tito from Paris (2014) showed us, this moment has a good deal of exploitable eroticism to it. There’s a lot of the running around that comes through the broadcast.

***

During the intermission there is character commentary from Ford and Harris, much more insightful than you would get from something like a Met intermission chat.

Act II

Annio : Sesto: it’s what you’d expect from a smaller house, with Miller sounding wooden and Mentzer pretty decent.

Torna di Tito a lato: I don’t like Miller’s tone for Annio but she does the job.

Partir deggio…?: Mentzer continues in her competent manner. Harris starts very well, with a lot of uncertainty and even fear in the way she phrases Sesto…! but then things lose clarity, especially in the part where she complains that Sesto would be won over if Tito showed him clemency. She sounds too regal where she should keep at least some of that fear. I think it’s a matter of both talent and experience. Walker’s Publio is of the polite kind.

Se al volto mai ti senti: Mentzer wasn’t at her most agile at this point, but she doesn’t force it. Sesto needs to sound wistful and that does come through without ersatz whinginess. Harris’ start is a bit unsure and for most of time I’m not sure she’s singing on the breath. I might be wrong but there’s something there going on either with her emission or breath production that is obvious in a duet or trio when everybody else sounds different. As usual in this performance, she relies on trills and the one she does on Vitellia’s first che cru-del-ta! fits the mood – the effect is of losing guts in the middle of the word. It’s a clean rendition of the trio.

Ah grazie se rendano: the feel is of community theatre until the moment Ford shows up when it’s like the sun coming from behing a cloud and and infusing everything with shape and colour. There is no characterisation from the choir, however the microphones might have been closer to the men, as a few of the voices spring out throughout. Or maybe they had bigger voices. It’s really rather unusual for a broadcast; otherwise I’d have thought the bootlegger was sat right next to certain male singers.

Whenever I get to this point in the opera I have a feeling I have heard this first in Tchaikovsky (namely in The Nutcracker) and I always vow to myself to re-listen to that for calrification.

There’s a curious stage sound in the middle of Tito’s lines, which sounds like firecrackers being lit.

Tito : Publio: Ford is a pro, he sounds like he’s on a big stage. Tito is confused, which is very valid yet not always done as clearly. Walker does his best.

Tardi s’avvede: the curious stage sound effects return. Either Publio is lying down on a tarpaulin or he’s pushing something wooshy across the floor. Or maybe Tito’s sweeping? Hard to tell but stage directors should keep in mind that this poor chap has only one aria. Walker sounds like he’s got a blocked nose but otherwise I have no complaints (well, aside from a lack of distinction). Good diction.

Tito : Annio : Publio: Tito is surprised and alarmed but still incredulous in that regular but noble chap way specific to Ford’s Tito. Ford pulls his colleagues along and both do well. Annio… please leave me alone! – which many Titi do in a forceful manner, is done in a small, vulnerable tone. To me that is even more effective considering Annio’s fearful request. Then he shouts partite!!!!! at them and there’s some scraping on stage. It feels like Annio’s climbed up a column and is making his second request in one scared-shitless breath from up there.

Tu fosti tradito: Bicket conducts this very heroically. Miller is surprinsingly good at this heroic take and her attack on the screechy highs isn’t bad at all. I’d wager this was one of her main audition pieces when she started. I liked it and it’s not esay to pull off.

Tito’s anguished monologue: it sounds like something from the 18th century, like Mozart. I was saying ealier that talent and experience are very obvious sometimes. I think Harris understands her role very well but perhaps can’t express everything she knows. Not so with Ford. This is a very difficult recit, where one can easily lose their way or lose energy. He doesn’t and he keeps me focused with his excellent command of phrasing. Now angry, now confused – lost to his inner conflicts – Tito’s anguish is touching. Not many singers can express idealism as well as Ford does in his musing about the peasant. He “gets” Englightenment. I know he’s said elsewhere that he had a hard time finding Tito so soon after 9/11 but that intensity of searching works in his favour.

Tito : Publio : (Sesto): Tito tells Publio he wants to see Sesto and Walker does a very good job sounding a bit embarrassed about the situation. Tito doesn’t cover his hurt at seeing Sesto.

Quello di Tito e il volto: I’ve always liked how differenciated the three parts are in this trio – Sesto’s tremolos, Tito’s staccati and Publio’s arpeggios. Mentzer’s Sesto is not one of the most detailed but the basis is solidly sobre. Her trill on non può di più penar tells all that one needs to know about Sesto at this point in the plot: he’s very close to opening up to Tito but ultimately can’t. So good job to Bicket or whoever came up with this consistent use of trills to pinpoint psychological moments. Also good job Mentzer crafting the extra layer. Ford’s tone was lovely.

Tito : Sesto: continuing this sobre and traditionally manly Sesto (the kind who doesn’t talk too much), the relationship between Tito and Sesto is crystalised here as of two friends of different social standings. I get the feeling Tito can afford to be more effusive in general, not just at this point. Sesto, of course, has extra reasons to be reserved. It’s working. Sesto is very polite and not overly vulnerable; when asked, he can face the truth. The combination makes him more noble than usual, especially when juxtaposed with this very friendly Tito (the kind of friend who says he would do anything for you and actually means it).

More stage sounds, so I imagine that, without further ado, Tito signs the death warrant (and perhaps shows it to him as well, when he says sconoscente! e l’avrai).

Deh, per questo instante solo: there is a bit of an pianforte variation before the actual intro, then the intro starts quite a bit chipper than usual. Mentzer’s rondo is built on the implied self criticism of the line il tuo sdegno e il tuo rigor, to emphasise Sesto’s upright nature in spite of his momentary weakness. It’s clean and reserved, in keeping with her characterisation up to this point. The instrumental transition from minor to major between né si more di dolor! and de pietade indegno, e vero is evocative of Sesto’s being in two minds, of his chosing Tito over Vitellia.

Tito decides: Ford goes softly on this

Se all’impero: time to put the pedal to the medal but for all the pizazz that bookmarks it, it’s still the softness that sticks with you. This Tito believes in peace. Ford also makes it belong with the rest of the opera, instead of giving extra emphasis at the expense of what comes before.

Vitellia : Annio : Servilia: Vitellia is frantic. She’s running around like a headless chicken, worried her involvement was discovered. The lovebirds corner her and she tries to wiggle out of it. She’s really not sure and sounds rather whingy, even as Annio tells her she’s Tito’s latest choice. Servilia doesn’t take no for an answer.

S’altro che lagrime: all the ladies here (perhaps aside from Miller) tend to darken their tone and strangely so does Rodriguez. If there ever was one role where brightness was always a requirment this is it. Rodriguez seems cautious about her top (there’s quite a bit of wobble) and so the non gioveras come off lacking in power, volume and zing. On the bright side, the way she goes about it all works out for her and nothing drastic happens.

Ecco il punto…/Non piu di fiori: Harris didn’t gauge her energy well and placed more emphasis on che per tua colpa than on devine reo. Otherwise the monologue wasn’t badly driven. Perhaps she could’ve got more mileage out of Vitellia’s realisation that helping Sesto could also help her.

For the rondo, Harris once again relies on her ease with trills. One of them (on discenda Imene) is very expressive and hits the mark, the other one (on ah, di me che si dirà) seems spontaneously spurred by the earlier one’s success and feels tacked on at the last minute. It’s clunky but Harris rides it for better or worse. She goes to town once more later on qual ororre!!! but only by revving on the top notes, which works out to the desired effect. We know by now that Harris is by a wide margin more comfortable with the the acuti than the lows and the low G (or something along those lines) is place on pieta. She made it through but I think at the expense of clarity of characterisation. The basset horn is very fine throughout and even has a (playful, detached but not necessary unsympathetic) personality.

Act II finale

The otchestra segues into a bouncy, regal renditon of Che del ciel, with the choir perhaps starting off stage, as it’s hard to hear them, unlike before. Tito is dignified and chides Sesto in front of everybody, but Ford phrases it so that Sesto gets the reason for his deepest sadness. Vitellia shows up in her whingy voice, Tito is surprised in a tired way. Harris borrows some of his dignity as Vitellia’s confession rolls. Ford continues in his deadpan way and once again he’s one of the few and the best at making serious Tito sound believable.

The way Mentzer delivers Sesto’s apology and Ford responds for Tito gives unusual hope for a reconciliation. There’s more vibrato that I’d have liked from our sopranos in Eterni dei that kinda covers Tito but remember those loud voiced men in the choir? They offer some balanace and Bicket drives it home solidly enough.

It’s better than I hoped, with some fine moments that I wouldn’t have expected. Bicket kept a tight leash. Ford confirms himself as one of my favourite Mozart tenors (which also translates as favourite Titos). Mentzer gave us a very together Sesto, dramatically and vocally, and Harris surprised me with her top drawer performance in Vengo! …Aspetatte… Sesto!!! Miller also did a very good job with the tricky Tu fosti tradito.

Let us also not forget that September is Tito Month! So whip out your favourite Titi and get celebrating😀