A most dignified Tito (Davis, 1976)

Let’s visit many people’s favourite recording of Tito. Although times have moved on, there are still good reasons to listen. I think this might be the first recording where the drama at the centre of the opera is paid proper attention to, although not quite as ruthlessly as we do these days. Still, these are not beautifully sung wooden characters, they are flesh and blood people with reasons and emotions worth exploring – and occasionally not so beautifully sung.

  • Tito: Stuart Burrows 
  • Vitellia: Janet Baker
  • Sesto: Yvonne Minton
  • Annio: Frederica von Stade
  • Servilia: Lucia Popp
  • Publio: Robert Lloyd

Conductor: Sir Colin Davis | Orchestra and Choir of the ROH

This is the oldest of the 3 Colin Davis recordings of Tito I have. As I move on to the other ones I’ll try to see how he’s changed, if at all.

Overture: light-footed, alert = dignified Romans.

Ma che, sempre l’istesso?!: the drama makes itself felt, though it’s frostier than you’d expect in a Mediterranean country. A bit fast. The setting appears to feature a very young Sesto – an adolescent, perhaps – in love with an older, calculating woman who uses him to further her ambitions.

Come ti piace imponi: by contrast, this is a bit slow, obvious once Vitellia gets in. Sesto’s part works very well done slowly, Vitellia’s not so much – for lack of contrast. Things get better during the proper duet where you can tell them apart specifically by the way they act vocally, Sesto still softly, Vitellia urgently. Good job!

Annio jumps in: Flicka does one of those OMG, OMG, Tito is wonderful and we should attend to his every move Annios. The drama between Sesto and Vitellia is rather discreetly played out.

Deh, se piacer mi vuoi: JB’s voice is not my favourite, however I don’t dislike it. Still I don’t “feel” her for Vitellia. Maybe I’m too stuck in what I want in my Vitellia but I expect some playfulness here. She’s close to that on occasion but, as they say, no cigar.

Deh, prendi un dolce amplesso: gently sung. These two BFFs are not the manliest men but are believable as best friends. The youngsters here seem alone in a world of adults with complicated agendas.

March/Serbate dei custodi: slow and imperial, even a bit waltz-y. Maestro must have an inclination for elegance. Serbate speeds up but keeps the imperial feel. Too much soprano in the mix. Not my favourite.

Publio and Annio kiss some arse: this Publio is the thick-voiced bass kind. Tito is very noble and properly imperial. Burrows sounds about 25 years older than his boys.

Serbate is reprised, then the March. A bit weird but I like them so why complain. I guess it’s done this way for the sake of classical proportion – or something.

Tito shows some emotion by appearing to be hurting at the thought of having had to send Berenice away. He sounds very soulful all the way to announcing that he intends to marry Servilia. It’s a bit inconguous, in the context of sounding much older than his friends. Maybe he’s just lonely and needs friends and these two happened to be there at the right time. Sesto and Annio continue to sound like (very young) dignified Romans.

Del piu sublime soglio: the text of this aria explains how Tito needs people to do things for. Burrows’ tone is beautiful but why so sorrowful?

Non ci pentiam: Annio is the most tormented so far. He sounds wretchedly in love. Servilia keeps it together pretty well. She’s dignified too.

Ah, perdona al primo affetto: I was informed Flicka is definitely a mezzo, although I’ve always had my doubts. In any case, she and Popp do a lovely, detailed job here. Sometimes I have trouble telling Annio and Servilia apart in this one, but not here, as Popp’s high notes are quite unmistakable.

Burrows’ voice is both auspiciously noble and respectful, which fits this most benevolent of monarchs, especially when addressing Servilia.

Ah, se fosse intorno al trono: what a strong start! Burrows’ heroic attack took me by surprise. He reprises it more gently later on, although un vasto impero also comes off booming. It’s almost like Tito is urging himself to be happy, which he might as well, since he’s sounded melancholic up to this point.

Servilia/Vitellia face-off: JB sounds strangely old-ish here. She is ironic rather than fuming but gets to chew some scenery as soon as Servilia is off.

pre-Parto recit: nice harpsichord dissonance just before she starts off with Ancora mi schernisce! JB is a cold Vitellia, although maybe not quite as scarily cold as I remember it (I hadn’t listened to this recording in over a year). I’d now say she’s tough and ruthless in a civilised way. She wouldn’t resort to physically assaulting Sesto but she most definitely wouldn’t ever stop pressuring him to do her bidding. Marmoreal Vitellia. Sesto sounds exhausted but he puts up a bit of a fight. There’s a couple of seconds break where Vitellia changes tactics from you must do as I say to you could be a hero, I could be yours… It’s sly and almost purring. Almost sexy. Seems to work on Sesto but Vitellia knows better.

Parto: the intro is rather sad, as if the orchestra is saying Sesto! You’ve let us down, man. YM’s Sesto puts on a courageous front with his twin partos but we get the feeling he’s more confused than ever. The clarinet chimes in with its own disappointment.

Parto is a curious aria, isn’t it? Now a gorgeously gentle line, now nervous strings, stop and go vocals affectionately echoed by the clarinet/orchestra… it all seems to endlessly meander. Eventually the tempo picks up only to dissolve into another long line. Sesto abruptly makes up his mind just when you least expect it. I like how YM doesn’t sound quite as decided as the orchestra does at that moment. (Briefly put: this Sesto is swept by the events around him.) She follows that with another courageous front on guardami, tutto oblio! but, as in the initial partos, as if Sesto is merely hoping for the best. YM does a very good job with this and I like her tone, although rather girly.

Vedrai, Tito, vedrai!: this Vitellia is right gleeful, in her marmoreal way. Then she’s speechless as she learns what Tito has in store for her.

Vengo… Aspetatte… Sesto!: interesting mix of three very distinct voices. Annio is bright, Publio thick, Vitellia dark = the flavour is unique and I think works very well with the urgent nature of this trio. It’s cleverly thought out so I’m not bothered by JB’s top limitations.

Act I finale

Some people think this is one of the best things Mozart wrote. He certainly packed a lot in not that much space. Maestro brings out the anguish, confusion, metaphorical darkness and surprise vividly – but in his gentle, elegant manner. YM goes for it in Sesto’s recit. There’s palpable self loathing. Nice job the Maestro differentiating Sesto’s moods. A while ago it occurred to me that the Sesto infelice… bit of Oh Dei, che smania è questa? reminds me of Figaro’s recit Tutto e disposto… (pre-Aprite un po’ quegli occhi).

Act II

Annio/Sesto recit: the second act starts with a harpsichord arpeggio that says later, in Sesto’s villa. Annio rushes to give Sesto the good news, Sesto rejoices before he catches his own reality. He’s quite self-flagellating. Whoa – Annio is at at loss for words. He can’t believe it. Sesto is upright, wants to punish himself, we believe him. I really like YM’s voice in this recit, way noble. Annio doesn’t want to lose his BFF. It’s Sesto’s turn to be surprised at his very earnest’s friend readiness to bend the truth.

Torna di Tito a lato: make good and it’ll work out somehow, says Annio. As usual, Flicks has beautiful, sensitive top notes. This is the voice you want to intercede for you with Tito.

Partir deggio…: Maestro wooshes through this one and I think it’s a good idea. The tension is high, Vitellia is a basket case, Sesto very chivalrous, Publio sure of himself, although not gloating. Oh, colpo fatale… is very credible, as is ingrata!… addio… ; even modern-sounding.

Se al volto mai ti senti: starts very softly, Sesto sounds sad, hardly bitter. This Vitellia is perceptive, she’s already started to feel bad about forcing Sesto’s hand. Publio is one of the most empathetic you will hear in this role. Good job all three, meshing very well.

Ah, grazie se rendano: delicate easing into it, as if people are just waking up. Maybe they are. Dusting the ashes off their jackets etc. Surreal pace for a surreal moment, blended choir, gently supporting orchestra. Lovely entrance by Burrows, fine balance between the softer and the more passionate moments followed by dreamy reprise by the choir and orchestra. One of the best.

Publio/Tito recit: Publio is serious but rather nuanced, Tito still hopeful and very manly.

Tardi s’avvede: oh, yea, I like Lloyd’s phrasing – one of the most powerful sounding Publios but also capable of gentleness (on the repeat). He’s a friend to Tito but also believably as the Chief of Guards – proper toga-wearing Roman; I can see the mosaic under his feet. The sprightly pace fits his solidity.

Tito won’t believe it. The three of them – Tito, Annio and Publio – sound like the nicest bunch.

Tu fosti tradito: this aria is made for high mezzos with bright tones. Flicka is one of the few Annios who sound right at home here. She tosses off some lovely floated pianissime, especially on sperar and mirar.

Tito’s anguished recit: declamatory but Burrows sounds sincere in spite of it all.

Quello di Tito e il volto: more nobility right from the get-go. All three, lead by a very elegant Sesto, feel bad in the most civilised way. It’s classically beautiful.

anguished 1:1: Tito is plaintive and needy. Sesto is a confused little kid but not a coward.

Deh, per questo instante solo: YM is into it, she starts in a sad, full of regret tone and gets worked up as the text does, her tone is beautiful and appropriate = excellent version. In the context of teenager Sesto this is the moment he grows up. In this case Sesto has a lot of admiration for Tito(‘s image) as the kind of adult he wants to emulate. He feels he let down his mentor, which to him is the worst thing in the world.

recit: Tito isn’t happy but turns the situation around in his favour – the perfect opportunity to toot his own horn! So poor Sesto has been used by both people he’s infatuated with… harsh.

Se all’impero: Burrows goes all Imperial on this. This is the kind of Tito who takes himself very seriously. He’s neither neurotic nor indecisive. He knows his way is the right way, which is reflected in the even way he reads the text over the two contrasting sections of the aria. I’ve never paid attention to the winds during the altro cor coloratura1 before but nice detail; it’s like good job, Tito, well done. There is a feeling with all Tito’s arias – even the bit in Ah, si grazie se rendano – that he’s always in awe of himself; this Tito more so than others.

3-way recit: convincing interplay between Servilia, Annio and Vitellia. The last one already sounds ready to mend her ways.

S’altro che lagrime: we’re not worthy of the crystal clear non giovera. Yea, I want to sing like that when I return as a lyric soprano in a future life. It’s very straight forward and elegant. Replay button breaker.

Ecco il punto…: this very ferocious Vitellia has been brought to her knees. The complex moment is intelligently carried.

Non piu di fiori: JB has unsuspectingly grown on me. I don’t know that I particularly like her Vitellia as much as I have started to appreciate the sound. What I mean is Non piu di fiori fits her compelling and recognisable tone and I want to listen to it again. It’s a repentant woman all right but is it Vitellia? In the wake of this month’s Alcina madness I’m thinking it might be more Alcina than Vitellia. That is, JB’s Vitellia is so strong and in control – even rational – that she appears detached from everybody else. In the end I think she’s sorry for moral reasons rather than because she loves Sesto.

Self-deception abounds: Vitellia deceives herself that she can achieve her goals with Sesto’s help, Sesto deceives himself that she loves him, Tito deceives himself that he is a good man. This is even more apparent in productions (like this one) where there is no erotic tension between Tito and Sesto.

Act II finale

The finale fits the overture – similarly grand yet elegant. Maestro has a knack for smooth segues and his pacing is lovely. The choir is strong. Burrows does the straight-up just Emperor to the end – gentle yet manly. JB sounds self-punishing. It’s coherent. Burrows manages to keep Imperial even as Tito laments the lack of honesty around him. There is a bit of of its time OTT-ness but I didn’t find it too intrusive.

This is as traditional as it gets. If you accept the punchline “Tito forgives” with a straight face, this is the recording for you. If you’re not satisfied with that, you should still listen for the fine sounds made by all.


  1. Upon checking with other versions, the detail isn’t emphasised as much in other recordings. 
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About dehggial

opera lover with a predilection for Mozart and Baroque

Posted on October 31, 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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