The “Potato” Clemenza (Paris, 2005)
I watched and wrote most of this on medici tv’s very free music day back in June but for whatever reason the time didn’t seem ripe for it just then. You might be surprised I don’t already own this. Having seen bits and pieces I had some reservations and wanted to see the whole thing before committing. As far as I know this is a very old (by my standards), seminal production. It has aged exceptionally well, unlike others from the same period.
- Tito: Christoph Pregardien
- Vitellia: Catherine Naglestad
- Sesto: Susan Graham
- Annio: Hannah Esther Minutillo
- Servillia: Ekaterina Siurina
- Publio: Roland Bracht
Conductor: Sylvain Cambreling | Choir and Orchestra of the Opera National de Paris
Directors: Ursel and Karl-Ernst Herrmann
Overture: Cambreling’s conducting is gentle and subtle.
Ma che, sempre l’istesso?!: Naglestad’s is one of the most credible Vitellias; a cool and crafty seductress, who much later pulls off the U-turn in an interesting manner. Sadly, I’m not a fan of her voice. I don’t downright dislike it but there’s something missing.
This Vitellia is repulsed by the Sesto of the pink Hydrangea. He comes in all hopeful and kisses her on the neck. She pulls away and rubs at the spot, grimace on her face. Sesto is very earnest and genuinely loves Tito, as he shows us when he sits in a chair and thinks wistfully about Tito’s goodness. He’s so upright he’s slightly pathetic which is what Vitellia thinks, too.
Come ti piace, imponi: fairly dramatic conducting, Graham and Naglestad mix very well. For the fan mille affetti insieme battaglia in mia spietata Vitellia gets a bit into Sesto’s passion but possibly more to get him to do her bidding than because she finds him utterly seductive.
Annio’s recit: when chipper and ballsy Annio interrupts them, Vitellia acts all selfconscious. She deftly retrieves the dagger1 and begins to eat her healthy breakfast of fresh fruit. That makes Sesto look silly when he complains of her grossly manipulating him. Naglestad has this hilarious look on her face, all who, me, fuck with your head? Would I? I really like her acting, wish I liked her voice more.
Deh, se piacer mi vuoi: completely in control, Vitellia drops the dagger into the melon and gets up to deliver some quality seduction/mind fucking. She starts by pretending to seduce Annio, who likes it all a bit too much2. Sesto gets all hey, buddy, that’s my bird! – as close to slapstick as Clemenza can get. Vitellia proceeds to blindfold Sesto and cruelly makes fun of him. An apt illustration of their relationship. Poor chap – but really, he’s sooo earnest…
Deh, prendi un dolce amplesso: after Vitellia leaves, the two buddies are left alone in the small space at the front of the stage. Annio finds Sesto adorable and is ready to playfully blindfold and make out with him. Sesto is equally as passive with him as he was with Vitellia. Hey, handsome, you’re a total bottom. I’m amused at how often directors sneak in a Sesto-Annio angle, considering Annio is so hot on Servillia.
March of the Potato/Serbate, dei custodi: the march is grand and suitably slow – potato-like, you could say. After seeing the entire production I put some things together. The first question is the potato itself. The second is the muscle/flesh suit. The potato makes sense when linked to the weight suspended above the singers during the Act II finale – ie, the potato is Tito’s own “baggage”. As for the muscle suit, let’s analyse the context of its appearence: Publio helps Tito take it off whilst Berenice and the potato pass by. Then Tito washes his hands as a hark back to another Roman character. My take is the muscle suit is his human weakness. What makes me think so is the presence of similar symbolic objects on the floor, such as the discarded hydrangea and the melon. Tito’s initial choice is duty over his own feelings. (This of course makes me think about choice in general in regards to Clemenza. But let’s not digress.)
The Serbate moment is interesting. The choir is traditional and well behaved, Publio very serious and Tito puts up with his role. Annio barges in all giggly and playful and Sesto behaves like a confused teenager, trying hard to hide Vitellia’s blindfold. The both of them are in stark contrast to the very solemn moment. They’re also much younger than Tito. I’ve a slight problem with there being an obvious age difference between the boys and Tito. Nevertheless, Annio does not miss a beat when it’s his turn to deliver quality arse kissing to our beloved hero. As usual, Sesto looks uncomfortable. Publio speaks with a potato in his mouth, which for once fits the production. Tito sounds very serious and responsible, low and noble.
I’m not so hot on the choir, the sopranos seem too forward or something and it’s maybe even a bit loose? It’s the first time when I’m not happy with a Serbate, dei custodi.
March reprise: nice parallel between Tito’s and Sesto’s “woman” problems. Sesto is hiding Vitellia’s blindfold, Tito is holding the Empress’ shawl.
Tito’s recit: Tito looks genuinely upset over the Berenice business. Annio is very brave and well spoken but looks hurt enough.
Il piu sublime soglio: nice segue into it and well sung by Pregardien. Sesto looks ashamed. He wants to sneak out but thinks better of it and finally sits by Tito. Tells us a lot about Sesto’s upright nature. Annio pulls his
hair rather OTT orange wig.
Non ci pentiam: Annio is heartbroken in a dark space with mirrored walls at the front of the stage. In an eerily similar way to how Berenice sailed in by potato, Servillia comes in by boat. Another woman sailing out of a good man’s life. She’s in the boat with a book and a pen which might tell us she’s not just a pretty face. Which is true, she’s an 18th century female character, ie, ballsy enough to fix her own lightbulbs. Annio tries to act in an official manner but can’t hold it.
Deh, personna il primo affetto: I’m not so hot on Minutillo’s tone but I like Siurina and their voices mix well, making this very pleasant. I also like the choreography using “water” to bind their love. It’s sexy and youthful. So much for Servillia being off the menu for Annio.
Publio/Tito recit: Tito seems tired already. He thinks poltical police is odious and inefficient. We hear you, mate.
Servillia’s recit: in her youthful dress, Servillia plays the cute girl card and manages to convince a Tito who looks like a dad to her that she simply can’t resist love.
Ah, se fosse intorno al trono: the orchestra is lovely and lyrical although not as bouncy as in other recordings. It matches Pregardien’s dark-ish tone. Servillia stands atop a chair and looks confused and very young. When he gets to un vasto impero, Tito of course “shows” Servillia said impero and Annio, Vitellia and Annio poke their heads through the doors. Tito crowns Servillia then blows her a kiss. She’s happy to be off the imperial hook but it all looks very different to Publio (confused) and Vitellia (kneeling dramatically: please, please, Tito, notice me!!! He does but she don’t impress him much).
pre-Parto recit: Vitellia congratulates Servillia mockingly. Servillia hands her the crown and exits stage left. Vitellia continues to mock Servillia’s innocent air then looks pained at having been invisible to Tito. She’s a very attractive woman so what’s Tito’s problem? I guess he’s more into Mediterranean women. Or floral dresses. He’s certainly not into men in this production.
Vitellia is ready to get stabby just as poor Sesto steps in with a smaller and bluer bouquet (he might be worried about the previous hydrangea mess). Smoothly she switches back to her nagging self. Speaking of daggers, how’s stabbing? Sesto is so annoyed he flings the flowers and rolls his eyes. What does Vitellia do? Why, she mocks him, of course. This one likes to patronise by mocking. I agree, it’s a powerful tool – until you get punched in the face. Of course Sesto is too much of a gentleman for that so he just looks pouty as she, by turns, pretends she doesn’t/does love him. Sesto eventually succumbs to this sustained assault. Vitellia surveys this transformation with glee and determination. Her manipulation is very well acted, especially Perche non parti?
Parto: SG’s tone works nicely for Sesto and this is one of the best renditions of Parto out there, with expressive twin partos at the beginning. She’s entirely committed and credible as this honest but hopelessly in love Sesto. Vitellia continues to pretend to ignore his attempts at reconciliation. She’s busy putting on war paint. Things ’bout comin’ my way, she seems to be thinking. I like her owl makeup box – Vitellia’s beak is tough as nails. When she thinks she’s roasted Sesto enough she gives him the look he’s been dreaming about since before Ma che, sempre l’istesso. He’s about to pass out from ecstasy overload and SG matches the acting with a breathless take on the beautiful coloratura at the end. Vitellia chomps on some melon and even offers Sesto some along with her dazzling smile which says it all, eh?
Several times whilst watching I kept thinking this production is a lot better than I was giving it credit for. I mean I did like it a lot but not A LOT. It’s really intelligent, subtle, coherent, detailed, excellently acted and very well sung (especially by SG) but there are a few problems:
- this very nice and upright Sesto
- the very sane, fatherly Tito
- the sort of moldy Publio
Why is Sesto so damn honest? Come on, spice him up a bit. No wonder Vitellia is so turned off at the thought of hank-panky. Grandpa Tito, what does he want from these two kids, Sesto and Annio? There’s certainly no special bonding going on there, he’s just a kindly, respectable older chap watching over two young men with absolutely no administrative skills. Why on earth? Publio, nice breast plate but what else have you got there, mister? A sword to poke the youngins but not “poke” them, either.
Vedrai, Tito, vedrai: Vitellia is gleeful. Annio and Publio rush in from two different directions, with the Empress’ shawl and the crown. Vitellia’s fear and confusion is very well acted.
Vengo!… Aspetatte!… Sesto!: it’s a funny come and go moment as Vitellia is trying to make up her mind. At some point she tries to get Annio to understand her need to find Sesto pronto but he just smiles on and hands her the crown. Naglestad is fine and very committed. She gets ok support from Minutillo and Bracht. The trio is well paced but not exceptionally expressively conducted.
Act I finale
As all turns dark, the central door at the back opens to reveal a brilliantly white arched corridor complete with a winged statue which catches on fire just before a very frazzled Sesto decides to stop. Bummer! The characters wonder who could have plotted this just as Vitellia waltzes in looking for Mr. Honesty. When she finally finds him she tries to gauge if he’s done the deed or not. He directs l’orror della natura at her, as if to say see what you’ve turned me into? She’s not happy but still uses her charm to stop him from giving himself away. The choir is better here than on Serbate, dei custodi. The ending is rather powerful. Ashes fall.