A not so Roman Tito (Fiesole, 11 July 2014)
What with the current trend of having operas in fitting locations, performing Tito in a Roman theatre feels only logical. Exciting, even. So why, then, use modern costumes? For once I think it would have made more sense to take inspiration from the Ponnelle film rather than from the modern productions the director seems to be referencing. I’m not advocating going the lavish route, just more Roman. I don’t think Roman should necessary equal old school.
What we’ve got here is comparable with the Theater-an-der-Wien Tito production from last year. Both feature very competent young singers (seems like these days Clemenza is a handy opera to have young singers get a bit of stage experience/exposure) and a smaller budget. But where that production was relatively original and followed its central concept coherently, this one seems like a patchwork that never quite comes together.
Tito as blissed-out ruler is lacking in nuance but is a classic concept nonetheless and it probably works best out of all the other takes presented here. I suspect this relies heavily on Thammathi’s considerable charisma. Vitellia as comic relief is debatable, as enough productions insist on this possibility although I don’t think it works very well. Weak Sesto is weak Sesto; as far as I’m concerned, always an easy cope-out and a missed opportunity, but it’s a popular take so I know it will endure.
Tito: Nutthaporn Thammathi
Vitellia: Meredith Hoffmann-Thomson
Sesto: Stepanka Pucalkova
Annio: Sonja Buhling
Servilia: Teresa Tieschky
Publio: Peter Kellner
Conductor: Josef Wallnig | Orchestra Giovanile Italiana | Mozarteum di Salisburgo | Teatro Romano di Fiesole, 11 July 2014
Note: Seeing as how it’s 28 February and I’m not done, I decided to publish my thoughts on Act I and then update the post with Act II when I’ll finish it (most likely by the end of next week). The good news for those reading this blog is I’m going to have more time to write now that Winter is on its way out. Things will also be picking up on the live performance front and if (most) things work out the way I want them to, it’s going to be a pretty exciting season indeed 🙂
Overture: at first it felt rather meh. All the possible highlights are glossed over in a likely quest for getting over with. But then I thought ney bad. It is true that it lacks urgency, there’s a feeling of indecision about it, a sort of langueur, lack of focus, dispersion etc. But in this context that’s rather astute.
The stage is bare. Vitellia, walking in from the wing, looks rather scary midway through getting ready for the day. Did she and Sesto get it on whilst she was applying foundation? They seem like an old couple (as in they’ve been together for a while). Judging by their conversation it does feel like there’s not much they’re hiding from each other.
Ma che, sempre l’istesso!: this Vitellia sounds shrill. I do hope she’s got something to wow me, else this is going to be a short review. She’s putting on what looks like a long tutu but the way she does it seems more about showing off her red undies and turban. Not the classiest broad1. Looks like her girly Sesto will take what he can get.
Vitellia is all annoyed etc. up to una regina! which she says as if self pity suddenly dampened her anger. It’s differently done then usual, though I don’t know if it’s for the better. She’s not the first vulgar Vitellia but this one bluntly cuts to the chase:
Come ti piace imponi: she carries the self pity act into the duet, as she has zeroed in to the fact that Sesto is a softy and tears are more efficient than threats. Waterworks do indeed motivate Sesto, so he gamely endeavors to get better acquainted with Mr. Dagger. He has this cheerful look, like “hey, wow, Vitellia’s got a proper dagger! It’s so shiny and well sharpened, maybe she strokes it lovingly before she goes to sleep. I wish I was this dagger, man…” Pucalkova sounds rather generic lyric mezzo but pleasant enough. Vitellia gets the message and proceeds hands-on with the seduction giving a good reason to the neat little trill on Sesto’s alla (mia fe). Like I said, elegant she ain’t but luckily her Sesto is unsophisticared.
The director thought this short duet was the right place to cram in everything about their relationship. From a dramatic point of view the results are mixed. Early on Vitellia looks this close to biting Sesto’s ear (which I was hoping for) but later on she’s about to launch into backstroke mid lapdance. Right out it the lost chapters of the Kama Sutra 😉
Still, both of them looked into it, so it wasn’t so bad. But the director wanted the steam to intensify as the duet did. It’s in no one’s interest having your singers end up looking like deers in omg, how much longer do I have to do that? headlights. Here, for instance, I was thinking, ok, Sesto, you’ve trailed your fingers down her chest like five times now, how about cupping a breast? But what if Ms. Vitellia has vetoed the move during rehearsals? Has she also ixnayed the biting of the shoulders? Or is Sesto too shy/doesn’t like biting shoulders/doesn’t wanna look too into it/is thinking about keeping time/just remembered he left all the lights on at home and is on an electricity meter? As for Vitellia, a drop of glamour never hurt none – especially a would-be seductress. She comes off like the boss of all bosses: Sesto, let’s get this shagging business done with, chop-chop (ok, bad pun; there’s nothing left to chop at this point 😉 ). Considering a bit of summink is exactly what Sesto wants, I think she could (pretend t0) let him take charge for once.
But in the midst of this serious consideration, I think we shouldn’t forget the singing. There’s singing in this, innit. I didn’t remember it as either terrible or amazing.
Annio looks like Sesto’s little brov, which could add moral complications. For now it’s funny how he scolds Sesto for ditching Tito’s beckoning call. Jeez, Sesto, get a grip, will ya? Tito’s hurting and you and Vitellia are still playing mummy and daddy? He finds the dagger and looks like he’s thinking ha, it’s daggers now… Anyway, back to Tito. He’s so cool etc. I love self righteous Annios and this one throws them schemers a particularly chastising look. I know, Annio – sex before marriage! So dirty. Still, Annio’s the best actor in this scene. But the shit-eating grin Vitellia has when having to backpedal on the major moves she put on Sesto is priceless.
Deh, se piacer mi vuoi: it’s pretty well sung, Hoffmann-Thomson has a good idea of how this should be acted. It’s is one of those ‘piacers where Vitellia flirts with both boys (these two are not yet men) though Sesto goes all Octavian and pretends to sulk. I thought Annio wasn’t fooled by the lure of vulgarity but look at what a blonde wig can do! This production has taken a few leaves out of the Salzburg one and is encouraging Vitellia to put things on whilst singing. This Annio is right funny: he actually implies Vitellia is 3 parts drill sargeant and 1 part seductress. Imagine if she’d chosen Annio instead:
Vitellia: Hey, stud, off Tito and I’ll let you have your wild ways with me. Deal?
Annio: Off Tito? Don’t be daft, Vitellia.
Vitellia: Wild ways…
Annio: I’m impermeable to temptation, woman of questionable morals.
Deh, prendi un dolce amplesso: oops, can’t remember it… will return to it when I’ll update the post.
March/Serbate, dei custodi: I like how in most productions Publio and Annio are very busy indeed. Here they bring on stage a plinth with the model of the proposed Tito-temple, whilst Tito is thoughtfully strolling in and Sesto is hiding off-stage, looking stricken with remorse for what he hasn’t yet done. Tito looks convincingly indulgent with the arse-kissers then comes off very empathetic when talking about the victims of the volcanic eruption. I don’t know that I’ve ever been moved by this recit before. It helps that Thammathi’s speaking voice is particularly pleasant.
Whilst Serbate is reprised, Tito beckons Sesto on stage and chucks his crown of laurels at him. He looks like the sweetest friend you could wish for! Sesto, drop that knife now. He’s the kind of happy-go-lucky chap that finds happiness in virtue. He might be the only Tito who looked happy when he said he managed to get over Berenice by sheer power of will.
Del piu sublime soglio: buttah tone. This Tito reminds us why this opera is named after him. Thank goodness someone recorded him in this role because I think he’ll be singing Calaf or something quintessentially Italian before long.
Annio’s OmgOmgOmg moment: again well acted straight-up good guy Annio by young Buhling. Servilia shows up and looks aghast at the news. It’s always endearing when the young look youthful together. You know how singers are told not to wear dangly earrings during auditions? The good news is they’ll be strutting them on stage quite frequently (remember Moscow’s January Alcina? A regular singers’ earring revenge 😀 ).
Ah, perdona al primo affetto: no backstroke here but it still came off way cute.
Publio comes in all business: Tito, we’re on amber alert for sedition but this jolly Tito is all like feh, non me stancar con questo molesto sedition business when I’m busy looking for a wife. Give them cake and wrestling and I’m sure they’ll settle.
Servilia interrupts and Tito shows us how the Servilia, Augusta! line should be done. This chap rocks. He’s one of the most convincing straight-up Titi I’ve seen.
Ah, se fosse intorno al trono: the bassoon sounds like Tito’s heart speeding up for joy, nice touch. What can I say? I love Thammathi. He’s so enthusiastic and I really like a bit of Italianate styling in this aria. Enthusiasm is probably the best approach when young. He can get more deep and meaningful later on.
Servilia + Vitellia: musical theatre Vitellia returns. She gets all catty but oops, Servilia might be young but there’s a proper firecracker inside that dimply smile. Vitellia is outraged, she shoves the plinth and cries fakely. The director thinks Vitellia is a silly bint so who knows how Non piu di fiori will come off.
pre-Parto recit: until then, besotted Sesto comes in and – just like that – Vitellia proceeds to undo his trousers. Their relationship is basic “Me Vitellia, you Sesto, let’s do shag and murder”. There’s the usual mix of argument + (attempt at) seduction = it’s not convincing. This director thinks Tito is the most important person and the murderous couple is rather muddily directed. Vitellia does too many random things and is too clownish. Sesto lacks any personality whatsoever. Hard to believe jolly Tito could party hardy with this non-entity, but maybe a couple of drinks loosen him up all right.
Parto: the strings are hesiatant, Sesto looks troubled all right and properly unconvinced how to proceed. Disturbingly, Vitellia resembles my landlady. I can tell the director has watched and appreciated both the Salzburg and the Paris (“Potato”) Titi but, as often the case, good taste does not translate into good ideas. He’s not absorbed the meaning of those productions, just the style. It’s competently sung, all things considered, but it does make me think it’s a much harder aria to pull off excitingly than you’d think after hearing a seasoned pro.
Vedrai, Tito, vedrai!: Hoffmann-Thomson’s outrage face is dominated by her big round eyes.
Vengo!… Aspetatte!… Sesto!…: maybe it’s petty to complain when Vitellia sounds shrill in this trio; she’s supposed to. But the acidity I picked on Ma che, sempre l’istesso returns to grate my ears. The ending is sped up for urgency.
Act I finale
O dei…: this is the moment when weak Sesti wake up. Listing all those qualities Tito supposedly has makes this one realise hey, I’m actually an upright chap, my folks raised no muderer, how the hell did I get here? But woe is me, it’s too late… Pucalkova is into it and her low notes aren’t bad at all. Better personnenregie was needed for the ensemble (and thourgh the act), they behave generically “scared” (could’ve been Idomeneo).
Conclusion of Act I finale:
- 2014 was the year of Sesti smearing Vitelliae with blood
- even in this most dramatic moment, this Vitellia acts cheaply (shoes in hand)
- I liked the deal with the wall slit/steam, hence the composite picture
(2-4 June 2015)
Annio approaches from off-stage, followed by Sesto, neither looking the worse for wear. It seems like they were in the midst of a conversation. Annio tries to cheer Sesto up by telling him Tito survived the assassination attempt. Well, shouldn’t this have been the first thing to tell Sesto when they met?
Conversation after the fire:
Annio: …so after we fled the burning palace we went over to Servilia’s and one thing led to another…
Sesto: Annio! You two aren’t married yet.
Annio: What? We got our nails done. What did you think we did?
Annio: Anyway, Publio came by later. It turns out you were wrong and Tito is unharmed.
Sesto is gently mournful (which is a good classic take on Sesto) but you’d think he’d be a bit more enthusiastic at this news… He’s not too bad when he says this is it, I’m going away and with the subsequent confusion at Annio’s plea not to leave just yet.
Torna di Tito a lato: pretty good, affectionately sung.
Parti deggio…?: nice tone from Pucalkova in this recit. As Vitellia’s screech precedes her, Sesto gets panicky. She urges him to flee and he looks ready to flee indeed – away from her. If only, amato Sesto, if only. He looks at the end of his tether. I am too, every time I hear this irritating Vitellia. Gah. His gestures whilst saying our secret is buried within my chest look like he just wants her to shut the fuck up already. I hear you, buddy. There must be a terrible lack of hot and willing women at Tito’s court if he needs to put up with this shrew. She randomly manhandles him a bit until Publio shows up. Pucalkova isn’t bad at all at Sesto’s embarrassment at being called over by Publio.
Interestingly, there is no (attempted) murder weapon presented as evidence here. It appears that Publio believes Sesto will tell the truth faced with Lentulo’s confession. Al fin, tiranna! and ingrata, addio! aren’t as strong dramatically. Sesto looks annoyed and perhaps a bit scared.
Se al volto mai ti senti: Pucalkova does a lovely job here, soft and mournful, in what sounds like the strongest part of her voice. Hoffmann-Thomson sings a bit too beautifully for Vitellia’s antics up to this point. Publio sounds light and bright and about as menacing as a trapped flea. Perhaps the all around niceness of sound weakens this trio, as it lacks contrast. Dramatically I don’t get anything very clear from Vitellia. She looks generically scared but why? That Sesto will implicate her? That he will die?
Ah grazie si rendano: Tito returns to his study on his own, looking confused. The choir is girly and perhaps a bit uncoordinated. Tito is moving in his little cavatina. I like this guy.
Publio shows up to remind Tito that the arena is ready so all he needs to do is sign Sesto’s death warrant for the festivities to start. Tito sheds a tear. He still can’t believe Sesto betrayed him and wants the Senate’s signed decision. Publio knows better.
Tardi s’avvede: lightweight Publio sounds rather pleasant here. Not exactly an original rendition and perhaps a bit too much metronome in the orchestra = rather boring but come on, it’s a pretty tune.
Tito is confused by doubts but still trusts Sesto. He’s eager to hear from Annia but is let down yet again. Publio brings the Senate’s decision. Tito is distraught. Good acting from Thammathi through this scene.
Tu fosti tradito: not bad. Needs some improvement around the finer edges but the perils of screechiness are well negotiated.
Tito’s anguished recit: it’s very anguished but of the deeply wounded kind. Sesto appears during the end of it and Tito directs his last words at him. Sesto flinches. Publio rushes in as the trio starts and looks around as if Sesto somehow got away from him. Tsk-tsk, Publio; risk assessment failure.
Quello di Tito e il volto: Pucalkova’s voice fits this trio (not all Sesti do, especially the darker ones) and the singing isn’t without merit. But it’s hard singing with Thammathi and coming off better. The problem is surprisingly (perhaps) solved by having Sesto sound particularly girly. Since his voice also soars above the other ones in the mix, by the end of the trio this is the one still ringing.
Quello is where Publios are often in danger of getting drowned by the orchestra. This one (more of a bass-baritone) is a bit overpowered. Pretty good job Pucalkova falling to the ground during o, dio (she does it well a few times during this production; I sense someone’s taking their trouser roles seriously, eh?). There’s a very squeaky floor board – or indeed a squeaky toy in the pit – which gets stepped on at random times and completely throws my concentration. One shouldn’t giggle during this moment.
Tito : Sesto: it’s a good time to mention the somewhat perfunctory use of the harpsichord in this performance. Often times up to this point I noticed how, instead of underlining a dramatic moment or making a wry comment, the harpsichord merely sounded dutifully there. On occasion it was superfluous or even annoying, such as here, where it covers Tito’s siam soli. Hey, either go a bit before or after (and do it softer), don’t just bang loudly over Tito. It’s in the score, eh. But what are you trying to say?
Deh, per questo instante solo: very quick intro, rushed even. In the book this is marked “adagio” and that’s what orchestras usually do. With good reason too, it’s a moment of reminiscing not an acid induced flash-back. Tito and Sesto’s past is only implied in the opera, so if I conducted this I would try to gather all the affection they must’ve felt for each other.
Intro aside, Pucalkova sounds quite nice here, especially in il tuo sdegno e il tuo rigor. She’s young and not everything is in place, yet every here and there there’s a moment of loveliness. I also liked her little trill on (che fui teco un) traditor, which sounded appropriately remorseful. On the other hand, I thought the different moods of the rondo could’ve been more differentiated; the remorse and the moment of heroism (il morir non mi spavento, il pensiero mi tormento che fuit teco un traditor) came off rather generic.
Tito signs the death warrant: Thammathi is not a bad actor at all. Many Titi get OTT here yet he doesn’t. Somehow he manages to keep it real and coherent with his cheerful at heart Tito. Once he makes his decision, this Tito is back to his happy self.
Se all’impero: it’s lyrical yet happy. Everything having been set aright by his clement decision, Tito merely expresses his contentment. Thammathi’s voice is thicker than usual in this role. As such the infamous altro (cor) is quite obviously a challenge. I like the direct way he negotiates it, even though he doesn’t always win.
We’ve had a good time until now – clownish Vitellia is back. Sigh. She’s nosy and looks in Tito’s notebook, hoping to find some answers. I expect her to start shading the pages with a pencil. The security in this palace is seriously poor. Forget Sesto, down with Publio. She’s discovered by the other two girls. That’s right, this Annio is so girly there’s no point in pretending he’s a young man (=Annia). High school sitcom acting all around. After Annia tells Vitellia that Tito is getting ready to marry her, she and Servilia hug looking ecstatic. Err, wait, Sesto isn’t saved yet. Later, when she realises Vitellia is vacillating, she huffs Sesto e PERDUTO! and rushes out, infuriated. Err, Annia, you’re not helping. The bad acting continues even without her help. Servilia sounds like she’s making fun of Sesto’s devotion to Vitellia, Vitellia cries clownishly. Moving on swiftly:
S’altro che lagrime: or not. Whoever cast Servilia thought right, we need that ringing non giovera. That’s there all right but there’s 3 more minutes to cover and what I’m hearing isn’t inspiring.
And now for the moment I feared ever since Vitelllia stepped on stage:
Ecco il punto, o Vitellia/Non piu di fiori: at least this is less fake though not particularly credible. I was happy when the rondo started. Now that we’ve got that pesky acting business out of the way the singing isn’t bad.
But there’s something funny going on with the sound running through this video. The orchestra feels canned, which might be explained by the fact that it’s outdoors (innit?). Then the mics pick up every extraneous sound (the squeaky boards) but the orchestra and the singers aren’t properly mixed. Sound guy, you asleep? The singers don’t look mic’ed, so maybe the hanging microphones were badly placed or something… Here the basset horn is way louder than it should be. As a comparison, I listened to a couple of other (live) Non piu di fioris and did not notice this problem. It seems mic’ing the singers is the best solution for live recordings.
Since the basset horn was so loud (though quite pleasant in sound and delivery), it felt like it and Vitellia were each doing their own thing. Then there were a couple of rushed bits (discenda Imene ad intrecciar) where I think a bit of poetry would’ve helped (who self flagelates in a hurry?). I know it’s not particularly slow there but just a teensy bit less chop-chop, bang.bang.
The director suddenly remembered how Kusej wanted Vitellia to do some business with her makeup and change into something less comfortable round about here, so he has Vitellia slip in the wings and do her version of that. She even picks some items from a closet. Copy cats don’t score with me. Do your own thing, yo; if you’re lacking ideas get a day job. Since you (the director) insist, I’m starting to think this Vitellia is a(n) unnecessary and unfunny parody of Kusej’s. Not that I wouldn’t appreciate a wry parody of that production, but this is definitely not it; it’s not even a parody all around. And that wasn’t a low G.
Act II finale
The transition isn’t smooth. I know, I’m annoyed now, so I’ll give it another (last) try tomorrow (by which I mean later today). The choir is all right. Imagine a bunch of people all dressed in white but really randomly, as if they all went for whatever white items were currently clean in their wardrobe. I can think of a cotton vest and a pair of linen trousers in mine. The choir doesn’t look directed at all, so it’s hilarious watching everyone’s pose. You rarely if ever see so much randomness in a staged opera. This is the only sense in which the director wins over Kusej 😉
I like how Tito steps out of his lair of purity (brightly lit backstage) to return to the world of mortals and impart his sage advise. Vitellia tells all. She and Sesto look at each other and it should be… emotional in some way. Hoffmann-Thomson’s generic round eyed expression is back. Annia and her girlfriend squeak a high-pitched o, stelle! Talk about parody, it makes me giggle (highly pitched, of course).
Poor Sesto. Pucalkova can carry a suit – now waistcoat – quite nicely. Once again, though, the costume department can’t seem to fit a costume to a performer, regardless of their body type. Pucalkova is swimming in her waistcoat – and still it ain’t too bad; come on costume department, this one an easy job and you still failed.
Sesto sings his bit and stumbles off stage. Tito sings to us all about how he likes remorse better than constancy (a bit creepy, innit? The chorus girl right behind him looks properly scared). So are they friends again or what? Maybe not, when it all ends Tito walks back to purity land with his randomly dressed Romans whilst Sesto and Vitellia are left reaching for each other across the stage. I think I remember another production that had them do that kind of thing.
In conclusion: a very charismatic Tito. I like the happy-Tito thing, we could have more of them. It’s not the first thing that comes to mind but surprisingly it works. Vocally Thammathi isn’t the usual for Tito but I like him as a singer in general and wish him luck with his career. Turns out this Sesto wasn’t one of the weakest (morally), though leaning that way. Good physique du role, needs some work with the stage movement but promising. Pucalkova consistently held her own vocally. I’d single her out right after Thammathi as far as vocal performance. Come to think of it, dramatically too, weak-ish Sesto considered. It wasn’t bad, occasionally even lovely. Annio was a total girl but vocally not bad. Buhling showed quite a bit of comedy skill, so Cherubino might be more her thing. Servilia and Publio were all right-ish. Vitellia was a glaringly missed opportunity. I feel for Hoffmann-Thomson a bit, as I don’t think I focused enough on her singing whilst having to put up with the inane hodge-podge she had to perform. I think she did well enough vocally. I wasn’t very happy with the conducting either, the interpretation felt shallow. All in all, a rather poor outing but worth catching for the unusual take on Tito. Hardcore Tito fans only.