The stoned Mussolini Tito and his subtexty friends Act II (Zurich, 2005)
- Tito: Jonas Kaufmann
- Vitellia: Eva Mei
- Sesto: Vesselina Kasarova
- Annio: Liliana Nikiteanu
- Servillia: Malin Hartelius
- Publio: Gunther Groissbock
Conductor: Franz Welser-Most | Chorus & Orchestra of the Zurich Operahouse 24/27 June, 2005
Act II starts with Nikiteanu’s Annio managing his best ham-fest yet. It’s so OTT (with a few dead-on moments) that I chuckle every time I watch it. By contrast VK’s Sesto sounds rather good in his embarrassment. He’s had time to cool his head and seems resigned to leave the good life behind. Annio doesn’t bat an eye at the news of Sesto’s treason. Ok, he marvels loudly that his mentor could get his hands dirty which could be taken in many ways, but horrified he doesn’t sound. In fact he seems very collected and advises Sesto to play it cool. So I guess in this production it’s not so much that he’s so virtuous, rather he’s good at getting out of a sticky situation. I had a feeling it was so.
Torna di Tito a lato: whew, good thing we’re back to singing. I like Nikiteanu’s voice, it fits Annio, and her Torna is refreshingly straight-forward, good friend-like. You might wonder why is Annio this close to kissing Sesto. I wondered too, but this production is rather heavy on erotic subtext so yanno… remember I was speculating in part I about where they met in the first place.
Vitellia’s hot on Annio’s heels: Run! As long as you’re in town my secret can get out. Sesto is hurt. Hey, he says, grassing isn’t my MO. But there’s no time for verbal sparring, Publio’s here. Vitellia has a bad feeling. Who knew Publio was such a sleuth! Nice cover, big guy. He gives Sesto and Vitellia some space for their goodbyes.
Se al volto mai ti senti: Sesto’s all I’m waiting in my cold cell when the bell begins to chime/ Reflecting on my past life and it doesn’t have much time… Not really but the real tune doesn’t sound that far fetched, only prettier. He starts pleading with Vitellia who’s scared shitless and confused by the news that Tito is not dead. So there is hope yet. She kind of feels for Sesto but can’t bring herself to help him as long as Tito still needs to find a wife. There’s a bit of that addio vs. oh, dio! lamentation trick similar to the one in Idomeneo‘s Pria di partir, seeing, I guess, as it’s also a trio about leaving.
Ah, grazie se rendano: is done very softly, I like it. JK bounces his steamroller voice back and forth for Tito’s gosh, I still got friends in Rome solo. It stands out a bit like a sore thumb but I don’t mind.
Tardi s’avvede: mad-eyebrow Groissbock looks like a bouncer but sounds sweet like a girl. It’s pretty disconcerting putting his singing and body language together. Tito isn’t convinced either.
Annio returns and attracts Tito’s attention by clearing his throat. A lol moment if I’ve seen one and I’ve seen plenty here with this Annio. Tito hopes for the best but alas, Annio can’t lie. Tito shakes his head. Groissbock does a lot better than before with the bit of recit where he gleefully explains the Senate’s decision. He directs the verdict – terribile, ma giusto – at Annio in such a sarcastic way it makes me think he doesn’t like any of these whippersnappers Tito seems so fond of. Annio has the decency to look upset. Then he starts again in a funny accent and I agree with Tito, who looks like he’s thinking kindly piss off, Annio. But Annio is not so easily deterred. Maybe he thinks his position in Rome will be uncertain without his well connected brother-in-law. Tito doesn’t want to hear him but is too kind – and maybe too vulnerable right now – to call the guards on him. We don’t know why Publio isn’t doing his job. Maybe he’s only taking direct orders. Tito gives in and allows Annio to lobby for Sesto via song. Opera characters should know by now that listening to sung pleas only leads to more confusion.
Tu fosti tradito: Nikiteanu does well here, even the acting is pretty decent. The aria is delivered in an impassionate way but not overboard.
Predictably, Tito is anguished. He struggles with his double position of Emperor and friend. Promoting your friends has its pitfalls, after all. JK’s dramatic voice is convincing here.
Quello di Tito e il volto: the opening strands of this trio take Tito by surprise. It’s a nice touch, bringing his extreme vulnerability to the fore once again. Sesto looks shifty and can’t get too close to his boyfriend. Tito also walks as far away as possible. There is palpable uneasy tension between these two, good illustration of what is being sung. Maestro W-M isn’t kind to Publio and lets the orchestra fly over him every time he makes a point. He’s really keen on rhythm here which I guess makes sense as Sesto is busy being anguished and Tito gets progressively annoyed that his amato bene is apparently ignoring his requests to come closer. Poor Publio gets completely lost in the mix by the end of the trio. VK doesn’t escape W-M’s enthusiasm with the orchestra either but at least Sesto has a bit of a solo moment where she sneaks in a lovely trill.
There is a cool moment at the end of the trio where nobody says anything. It underlines the fact that the trio was a musical representation of internal monologues. Now it’s time to tackle the business at hand. Finally Tito tells everybody to leave him alone with Sesto.
It seems like Tito’s anger is gone. He gets very gentle and pleading. Sesto seems to test the waters when he says la mia colpa no ha difesa. Tito remains friendly and understanding yet he openly expresses his hurt and confusion. His heartbreak almost makes Sesto confess. But he changes his mind at the last moment. Instead of a straight up chat about the whys and wherefores he asks Tito to allow him a last kiss/song. Tito senses danger and tries to defend himself but Sesto insists and Tito has no heart to deny him this request.
Deh, per questo instante solo: starts softly and innocuously with reminiscing about the good old days. I think Sesto’s remorse is real. The thing here is, of course, that he uses it as a weapon to get himself out of this mess. He’s got a lot more agency than he appears but covered by a knack for diplomacy, proven before in his interactions with Vitellia. I really like how he lures Tito to him with his emotive singing without actually giving any explanation for his actions. Then he initiates physical contact by which point he’s got the upper hand. It’s cleverly choreogaphed, as the music picks up in a determined manner here. Sesto just says the same thing he’s been saying all along – I feel terrible for having betrayed you – but now it sounds like taunting. Tito looks properly confused. By the time we get to di pietade indegno e vero Sesto has mixed taunting with self-disgust in a manner that’s got Tito wrapped around his finger. From now on I think he keeps at it for art’s sake. He certainly looks like it the second time he says tanto affanno soffre un core and sneaks a glance at an utterly softened Tito. He knows he’s won but he wants to wrap it up in style. It’s almost funny how he keeps an approaching Tito at bay with desperato vado a morte, reminding his boyfriend that he will have him on his conscience. He had just played Vitellia in a similar way in Se al volto mai ti senti. In the end, as Tito seems to want to make ammends, he walks away, effectively denying him the upper hand.
Fascinating. I think this approach goes straight to the heart of the text. Arguably, said text can be interpreted in more traditional ways. Some Sestos earnestly own up to their involvement but humbly hope Tito remembered the good times. Others are soggy and destroyed by their guilt. Not this one. He feels bad enough for what he did but I think he loves himself too much to let others dictate his fate. It might look like what I described is just drama but the drama and the singing go hand in hand at every step. It’s why this is by far my favourite rendition of this rondo. VK owns in every way.