Weepy Tarzan Tito minces no words (Keilberth, 1955)

1955 – about as old as it gets for Tito recordings. Worth listening for that alone. Gedda as Tito was the other thing that made me curious. I usually find him too weepy for my taste but hey! you never know when a singer will surprise you. And guess what? Annio is sung by a man. Not a countertenor1, either, but an actual tenor(ino). Last but certainly not least, it was dirt cheap. Arm = twisted.

  • Tito: Nicolai Gedda 
  • Vitellia: Hilde Zadek
  • Sesto: Ira Malaniuk
  • Annio: Peter Offermanns
  • Servilia: Ilse Wallenstein
  • Publio: Gerhard Gröschel

Conductor: Josef Keilberth | Orchester und Chor des Westdeutschen Rundfunks

Tito month was about escape me without a Tito review. Here we are, with the one I bought along with Kasarova’s lieder CD.

A look at the basic booklet (track listing and credits only) reveals there are no recits. Not much emphasis on the drama, then, but I can’t say I expected a lot in that department from such an old recording. Better focus on how conducting and singing Mozart has evolved in the past 60 years.

Act I

Overture: there is more urgency displayed here than in other parts of the opera where we’re accustomed to expect that nowadays. Keilberth is not afraid of contrasting gentleness with real harshness.

Come ti piace imponi: Malaniuk sounds beautiful, Zadek no so much – sort of shrewish, which at least shows thoughtfulness towards casting. Sadly things are bland on the dramatic front. Neither sounds like this is a particularly important moment, although Zadek’s shrewishness has a bit of an edge.

Deh se piacer mi vuoi: I’m a tough customer when it comes the this aria, I know. I try to keep that in mind each time I talk about a production. Ah, the phrasing… Zadek sounds very in charge but nowhere near sexy.

Deh prendi un dolce amplesso: very different, what with a tenor in the mix. Why exactly have a tenor sing Annio rather than Sesto, if you need another man to balance the male-female ratio? Whatever the reason, I enjoyed it as novelty – Annio singing lower but sounding more plaintive. It was taken at a funereal pace so it came off somewhat odd, as if the two BFFs were signing a terrible pact or something. Yea, mystery is good but not in this straight forward duet.

March/Serbate dei custodi: it gets very Baroque when done slowly. Takes like this remind you it’s opera seria. The track listing splits the two which might makes sense but I dislike it. The choir ain’t bad at all but their pronunciation is funny.

Del piu sublime soglio: Gedda sounds weepy all right but not as whiny as Trost. Emperor? Eh. However, he does cope with the music – of course he does.

Ah, perdona al primo affetto: it’s hard to imagine Annio like this, especially since Offermanns does not sound very young… Wallenstein’s style is old school and she was perhaps not particularly young at the time, although she’s very secure. It’s like Nan and Grandpa reminiscing about their first date.

Ah, se fosse intorno al trono: the tu-tu tu-tus are very gentle, Maestro conveys the inherent lyricism in a lovely manner. Gedda pronounces ma sa-ria felicita, as opposed to ma sa-ri-ia felicita as most (contemporary) singers do. Since my Italian is 100% operatic I’m properly confused now. Wish I liked his tone better, he’s actually very good.

I said I didn’t mind the lack of recits so much. It turns out I actually do. I just can’t get down with a lack of explanation to how we get from Ah, se fosse to Parto.

Parto: very, very serious business. Maestro starts the proceedings dryly, as if the orchestra is urging Sesto to make up his mind already, and continues that way to the end. In other words, marmoreal. Ira Malaniuk’s basic sound is appropriate for how I like my Sestos – sort of muscular or dense with a dash of elegance. The interpretation is another thing. I wouldn’t say it’s morose, because that implies emotion. It’s serious and detached. What emotion there is reminds me most of haughtiness, which is a weird touch for Sesto, but I guess Malaniuk was instructed to “think Roman Patrician”. Remember that cliche advice to writers, “show, don’t tell”? This is telling.

Vengo… Aspetatte! Sesto…: this time Hilde Zadek’s voice is rather beautiful (especially at the beginning of the trio) and here Vitellia has two male voices to support her. Maestro continues with the measured pace so conveying any urgency is up to Vitellia alone. Zadek does well given the lack of dramatic support. I think she had the potential for a lot more.

Act I finale

Maestro smoothly transitions from Vengo to the next chapter. Malaniuk’s Sesto is still haughty so the anguish comes from a place of dignity. This Sesto never reaches abject lows. But the tone remains beautiful. As the others join in Maestro keeps everybody surprisingly restrained. It’s a beautiful construction but far from disturbing.

Act II

Torna di Tito a lato: with the lack of recits, we’re forced to make a leap of imagination about how (and to whom) Sesto got to confess his crime. Offermanns’ Granpa Annio gives wise advice. He sounds heroic and dignified. These characters are Romans in the classic acceptation of the term.

Se al volto mai ti senti: Malaniuk’s tone continues to be gorgeous and tinged with sadness. Zadek, too, sounds beautiful here. Gröschel brings the most urgency. Since we don’t know what Sesto said and to whom, it might come off a bit as if he told all his friends and acquaintances, save for Tito (who we might not know is still alive).

Ah grazie se rendano: this chorus is one of my favourites, well done Chor des Westdeutschen Rundfunks of the ’50s. Gedda is lovely too, the plaintive tone fits the self-pity in this one. One of the very best Ah grazie I’ve heard so far, slow but not too much and really gentle and detailed support from the orchestra.

Tardi s’avvede: the cast is mostly German and they all have closed es. Gröschel also has one of those thick bass voices that remind me of day old mashed potatoes. It’s pretty jaunty.

Tu fosti tradito: funny one. It’s high enough for mezzos but what with the tenor transposition? High too. Offermanns copes, he must’ve sung some belcanto. It’s still funny hearing a man’s voice in this role.

Quello di Tito e il volto: Malaniuk is a good singer and she and Gedda mix well, what with both sounding so noble. Gedda’s part comes off very beautiful. Generally Maestro goes for beauty of sound. The drama is basic, even a bit of a rough sketch when it comes to Tito’s getting impatient with Sesto. Malaniuk’s biggest concession to drama is to sound embarrassed.

Deh per questo instante solo: skipping Tito and Sesto’s anguished dialogue works. Still I’d say it’s cut due to disc space constraints. Maestro keeps Ecco il punto and you could argue Vitellia could sing Non piu di fiori and we’d still get the gist of it. It’s without question a very beautiful version as far as sound goes. But should Sesto keep it so together even at this point? The different sections of the rondo give the singer the opportunity to accentuate different moods yet here it comes off very even. Then we get a very involved Tito in the next big number and you can’t help wondering why Tito is the more tormented of the two.

Se all’impero: weepy Titi run into unexpected trouble when called to negotiate the un altro cor roulade. Defeating it unscathed is hard enough for all Titi but combined with a teary tone it sounds like singing whilst jumping on a trampoline – or like Tarzan. Then again, there are times when sopranos do uncanny poultry impersonations… Gedda continues with his funny – to me – pronunciation: now it’s seall‘impero instead of the usual se all‘impero. Other than that I can’t complain, he’s into it.

S’atro che lagrime: cut to a different part of the imperial palace where Servilia and Annio try to convince Vitellia to intervene for Sesto. Nan Wallenstein sounds right out of crackling records but I like her in spite of myself. Maybe if I were of that generation I’d like her a hell of a lot.

Ecco il punto…: Zadek takes the recit in grand declamatory manner. Well, no. Vitellia should be contrite. Or scared. Or ashamed. Or all of the above. Her speranze, addio! sounds like she’s a famous actress on her farewell tour.

Non piu di fiori: it’s perhaps slower than usual. Zadek takes the low notes seriously, including the correct placement of the low G. But dramatically she’s still in grand diva mode. I guess that’s how they did everything back then. I’m after emotion and even the basset horn is keeping it together.

Act II finale

The good thing coming out of this larger than life approach is the direction of the ensembles. The orchestra, the excellent chorus, Tito and the other soloists blend wonderfully to create the “aural dome” that brings finales alive2. Eterni dei fully satisfies my 21st century taste. Way to finish it with a bang.

I really wish they cared about the drama at the core of the opera. It could have been an excellent recording. As it is it’s a historical document with some excellent moments and a lot of missed opportunities.


  1. Did they even allow countertenors out of church music back then? Or did they raise them on water and porridge in remote monasteries? 
  2. I get an immense urge to air conduct whenever I listen to this particular finale done right ;-) 
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About dehggial

opera lover with a predilection for Mozart and Baroque

Posted on September 26, 2014, in 1001 musings on la clemenza di tito, audio only, mozart, those two austrians and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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