In the beginning there was the Kertesz Clemenza (1967)
Just when you thought I forgot all about il primo amor, here’s another look at a Tito recording. Though replete with excellent – now legendary – singers, the big star here is Kertesz himself. The way the man manages to build excitement and bring out special details in the score is never less than delicious for the ear.
Tito: Werner Krenn
Vitellia: Maria Casula
Sesto: Teresa Berganza
Annio: Brigitte Fassbaender
Servillia: Lucia Popp
Publio: Tugomir Franc
Conductor: Istvan Kertesz | Chor & Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper
Although Clemenza was performed at Salzburger Festspiele as far back as 1949, this was one of the first recordings. Keilberth recorded it before but Kertesz’s is the seminal early recording. It boasts imaginative and affectionate conducting and rarely below very good singing but the drama is not quite what 21st century audiences are used to.
Overture: lively, engaging but not overly speedy. Kertesz brings out some nice details.
Come ti piace imponi: slooow start (yes, they skip the introductory recit) although as soon as Sesto begins things move along at regular speed. I kinda like Berganza’s voice here but Casula’s Vitellia exerts her dominating, big, full, voice from the get-go. She sounds 8ft tall. The end section is beautiful and both sound distinctive, although I wouldn’t say particularly expressive of mille affetti.
The recit about the news of Berenice’s leaving is relatively dramatic, with Annio the most emotionally involved. Vitellia sounds rather reasonable when not singing. Sesto is a bit upset but not too much.
Deh, se piacer mi vuoi: great chops for Casula’s Vitellia, secure, lovely middle voice and all but as interpretation goes there’s plenty of room for her to put the pedal to the metal. It’s rather slowly taken and my attention drifted in and out during it.
Fassbaender’s Annio has a gentle yet less girly voice than we usually get for this young man. Together with Sesto he sings an earnest Deh, prendi un dolce amplesso that is very easy on the ear.
March/Serbate, dei custodi: here the slow speed fits very well. The tempo picks considerably on Serbate, dei custodi, which is likely one of the best Mozart choruses. The Staatsoper chorus sounds exceptionally well drilled.
Krenn’s Tito is particularly gentle and approachable. Sesto sounds somewhat melancholic or subdued. Annio is more dynamic but seems to face the possibility of losing Servillia with a lot of sang froid.
Del piu sublime soglio: I like Krenn’s fuller tenor although he gets so soulful and even sentimental on al merto e alla virtu that I’m not sure I believe he’s the same Tito who ordered Jerusalem to be charred to the ground.
Annio continues in his dignified and reserved manner whilst delivering the news to Servillia. He says he can’t go on talking but he sounds like he can cope rather well. Servillia’s suprise and confusion is well done.
Ad, perdonna il primo affetto: the gentle tempo of the duet fits their tenderness to each other. They sound beautiful and distinctive together. I like Servillia’s crystalline tone.
Even Publio, when he tries to convince Tito of others’ not so positive attitude towards him, sounds gentle and friendly. You’d think the Roman court was the most congenial place in the Mediterranean world. Tito doesn’t get sarcastic or overly concerned. He has a sort of thoughtful but conciliatory attitude towards the possibility that some people don’t agree with his methods. Later he seems shyly touched to see Servillia, who’s of course come to wiggle her way out of her royal luck. Popp’s Servillia sounds very sure of herself and not in the least intimidated to be speaking with the emperor, although she is polite.
Ah, se fosse intorno al trono is taken at an excited pace which mirrors Tito’s pleasant surprise. It’s lovely but I’m getting a bit tired of his extreme gentleness.
After Tito is gone, Vitellia shows up and puts on an almost reasonable face whilst congratulating Servillia. Servillia doesn’t care much about the catty subtext and leaves her to her seething. Vitellia gets steadily more and more worked up when alone. As Sesto arrives she immediately starts pumping him with impatient questions. Corri, mi vendica e son tua is delivered in such a matter of fact manner I chuckled. She sounds like a mother setting out chores for her teenage son. She goes on “scolding” him for a while and I can only assume Sesto stands there ashamed, because he says very little, all of it in an innocent and melancholic voice. Finally convinced (or rather exhausted) he demands that she stop pressuring him but he does so in a very obedient tone. I believe Vitellia when she says she doesn’t trust his so called resolve. Rather annoyed, she goads him to get going.
Parto: the descending chords of Parto describe to us Sesto’s reluctant but defenseless consent. He says he’s going but sounds uncertain which is not too bad for starters. Berganza has a beautiful voice that’s pretty damn good for Sesto. The only problem is that hers is one of the most easily bullied Sestos on record. He’s melancholic and exasperatingly ball-less. He and Tito are two peas in a very soft pod. I don’t think there’s any sexual ambiguity here, because between these two we’re missing one top. I’m surprised Vitellia wastes her time with a middleman and doesn’t just bully Tito into marrying her. I bet he’d comply. As for Berganza, beautiful singing but why on earth would Vitellia imagine this chap could succeed on physically (or otherwise) attacking anyone? It’s dramatic takes like this that make some think Clemenza a stuffy, remote, unrealistic opera worth a few beautiful tunes.
Vitellia sounds relatively pleased with her scolding in Vedrai, Tito, vedrai. Publio and Annio come to congratulate her on her new status. Vitellia has a nice touch when she asks “Cesare?”, as if she’s afraid he’s found out about her plan and is going to have her explain. Publio enunciates with gusto that Tito is waiting for her to join him as his new empress.
Vengo… Aspetatte… Sesto…: Mum Vitellia suddenly remembers she forgot to ask 17 year old Sesto to get some milk on his way to his mate’s house and Waitrose will be closing early today. What’s worse, she also forgot to charge her phone so she can’t call him. Publio and Annio remind her that Asda is open late but she thinks shopping with the riff-raff is below their rank. Ever imagine this trio used in an advert? Let’s not give anyone ideas. Casula sounds more annoyed than panicked, but she copes very well with the notes and so do Annio and Publio.
Act I finale
Kertesz keeps an excitingly tight leash on the proceedings which follow at a brisk speed evocative of Sesto’s internal anguish. Berganza is doing her part admirably. There’s no pointless languishing or overacting. Her low notes are almost expressionistic in conveying self hatred. Publio is a bit potato-mouth but appears quite confused himself. The others (choir included) are spot on. The whole thing comes off extremely concise. It feels like Kertesz achieves everything via a deft choice of tempo and well placed accents.
Sesto is again melancholic and soggy, Annio full of energy.
Torna di Tito a lato: we need more full voiced Annios. The no-nonsense tempo fits this Annio’s voice.
Partir deggio…?: Vitellia is agitated and with good reason. Sesto is sort of manly (that is, a bit more than before) but I wouldn’t count on him in a fist fight. Then again, this gentle Publio might just shift out of the way. Casula’s O, colpo fatale! isn’t too bad. She sounds like she’s ready to sell her mum to get out of this mess. Al fin, tiranna… is of course soggy.
Se al volto mai ti senti: this trio is one of my favourite Tito moments. In this case I don’t know that I get the interaction between Vitellia and Sesto. Generally I noticed two trends in what Vitellia can do at this point: either become remorseful or categorically distance herself from Sesto. Here she takes the second route but it seems to me she’s pushing it even further. There’s a proper wall in between the two, almost as if they don’t even know each other. It’s otherwise beautifully sung by all, though I’m still not enamoured of Franc’s very dark bass. Likewiese the orchestra continues to hit the needed details, such as pausing a fraction longer just before Publio’s last vieni! – very effective.
Ah grazie se randano: the segue into this gently melancholic bit is optimal. The pace is right and the chorus slides in firmly but with a certain delicacy. Krenn’s entrance is almost as good, though his tone doesn’t quite match the sombre mood.
Tito | Publio: the two gentle chaps discuss the dramatic situation in slightly alarmed tones. Can’t say Krenn’s much of a voice actor. Franc continues in the plaintive tone he’s used thus far. Hardly dramatic.
Tardi s’avvede: the plaitive tone; it’s a speedy take. Ho-hum.
Tito | Publio | Annio: Tito isn’t convinced either. Energetic Annio asks for Tito’s mercy. Publio goes all told you so! though still rather softly.
Tu fosti tradito: Fassbaender knows better than to get hysterical. Perhaps her opaque top notes wouldn’t allow for that anyway. I’m still amused that she was caught on record singing this role. I could say more elasticity would have helped but then I like her tone a lot so, again, the full voice stands out.
Tito’s anguished recit: uh-oh, it’s true! Sesto betrayed me! – says the music via the strings. Mora…? is very sensitively done (nice touch of vulnerablility). Krenn does a much better job with his vocal acting here. It’s not too long either, Kertesz does not let it overstay its welcome.
Quello di Tito e il volto: Berganza has an interesting voice. It’s a proper mezzo with body to it, not too dark yet not too woodwind-like. Perhaps it’s got more kinship with the low strings? I was trying to put my finger on why I didn’t think her entrance in Se al volto quite did it for me. Here it fits much better. I like how Krenn’s avvicinati! continues Tito’s vulnerability. In an interesting reversal of roles, Sesto is at his most forceful here – certainly more so than Tito. We’re talking about a very dark Sesto behind his sogginess. This is the kind of chap whose extreme self loathing and sense of failure could push him to suicide.
Tito | Sesto: this Tito is very upset but not quite angry yet. He’s been let down but fears he might’ve done something to deserve the betrayal. I liked Berganza’s O! in O, la mia colpa non ha difesa!, it came off very expressive: Sesto sounded tired. I also liked the good light/dark contrast between the moment when Sesto is this close to confessing and the very next one when he muses about the neverending pain of it all. Sesto takes responsibility with the kind of bravura a teenager would boast. Even at this point Tito isn’t properly angry but doesn’t go the heartbroken route either. An accent of some sort would’ve helped here. The way Berganza’s Sesto requests a last kiss (l’ultimo dono) returns to the dark self loathing of Quello di Tito and is actually quite creepy. I’d put this Sesto on suicide watch post haste.
Deh, per questo instante solo: it starts expansively; there must be a lot of history between these two. Berganza is very reserved and again, dark – none of that smile in the voice at the memories here. The focus is on il tuo sdegno e il tuo rigor, not on “what we had”. Her pur saresti men severo si vedessi questo cor sounds like an afterthought, as if Sesto’s thinking what’s the use of defending myself? He’s right to hate me. The quick and anguished flight of disperato vado a morte matches the previous accents on il tuo sdegno e il tuo rigor; this Sesto is acutely disappointed with himself. I don’t think I’ve heard a harsher version of this rondo. Perhaps Kertesz didn’t much sympathise with Sesto 😉 Which raises the question: why would anyone?
Se all’impero: the previous recit is very quick (much of the text is slashed) and Kertesz ventures into Tito’s big aria in his fresh and exciting way. Even so, Krenn goes unexpectedly soft and sensitive on the first o togliete a me l’impero, o a me date un altro cor – unsual and lovely touch, wish others get inspired by it. It’s an all around very lyrical take of what is essentially a bravura aria. To reiterate: this Tito’s got the softest heart ever. He can’t get angry to save his life. Perhaps hardly credible as an emperor but are we really talking emperors and Romans here?
Servilia | Annio | Vitellia: these two chase Vitellia in order to get her to save Sesto. She doesn’t want to get involved, they don’t let up. Dunque Sesto taciuto! is said in such a self-serving way that I was a bit chilled. Hey, Vitellia, don’t you love him even a little bit? She tries to get rid of them but good and serious friend Annio reminds her Sesto will turn into wild beast lunch if she doesn’t act now. Servilia tries to coax the rather unconvinced Vitellia, who is getting a bit hysterical now, though it’s not clear if the love of Sesto enters the equation. I like how strongly personal all voices are, the drama is expressive here.
S’altro che lagrime: this is an opera where elegance in singing (and acting) is more than desirable and Kertesz knows it. Perhaps 2 hours of Popp’s high notes would get a bit grating. But when it comes to this aria, her crystal clear top – employed without unnecessary showing off or hysterics – is spot on.
Ecco il punto, Vitellia…/Non piu di fiori: one thing I love about Kertesz’s conducting is how he manages to make gorgeous details shine – such as the basset horn arpeggios “behind” Vitellia. Here the basset horn is neither glib nor sympathetic. It’s simply Vitellia’s inner confusion. Casula’s tone is more than adequate for Non piu di fiori. Like the rest up to this point, hers is a serious and stark take but always maintaining a modicum of dignity. You feel this Vitellia, perhaps not convinced that she was wrong as far as her situation is concerned, nevertheless knows she has to do the right thing or become a social outcast. Of course, she’s too well bred to even conceive of leaving society so the choice is more obvious than with nowadays’ Vitelliae.
Act II finale
The choir is also dignified to the bone. Tito is too. Vitellia’s perche son io is resigned and the rest of the confession suitably repentant. Tito wonders where all these traitors are suddenly coming from. Well, big boy, you haven’t been listening to Publio, have you? He lets everybody go. Remember acutely depressed Sesto? He says here that he won’t be able to forgive himself, which isn’t good news. Berganza sounds particularly otherworldly. Luckily, gentle Tito seems ready to see his amato Sesto through this terribly dark time so, surprisingly, there’s hope yet. Eterni dei is unsurprisingly fabulous – lofty and radiant, like the pinnacle of forgiveness it’s supposed to suggest. That choir is +++, the sopranos never sound shrill or unblended with the other voices and even get a muscular boost from the male voices. Just buttah, makes me want to buy into the happy ending.
This is indeed a work of art. Perhaps our contemporary sensibilities aren’t 100% attuned to this classical take on the drama but, man, is the whole impressive or what? Musically there’s virtually no fault and wow, imagine hearing this in the house. Kertesz has my respect.