Tito at ROH – Sussmayr’s revenge (2002)

This performance1 is unique in that it’s centred on Tito and Sesto’s Act II 1:1. But it’s not just about these two; Vitellia, though somewhat side-lined, provides exquisite moments of bitter sarcasm.

It might come as a surprise to today’s sensibilities but Clemenza was the first Mozart opera staged in London (in 1805). The very early Romantics actually liked it, especially the Act I finale. Then it all went pear-shaped.

Tito: Bruce Ford
Vitellia: Barbara Fritolli
Sesto: Vesselina Kasarova
Annio: Katarina Karneus
Servillia: Anna Netrebko
Publio: Brindley Sheratt
Conductor: Colin Davis | Orchestra and Choir of the ROH, 2002

ROH staged Tito last in September 2002 and luckily there is a boot to commemorate the event. Wish there was a video if only to see why the audience laughed on several occasions. Apparently not at the production… though I understand critics rather disliked it. Having seen Fritolli’s Met Vitellia I can guess she pulled some funny faces.

I’ve had a soft spot for Bruce Ford since hearing him as Mitridate and Idomeneo and I really wanted to hear his Tito. It’s no secret that VK is my favourite Sesto so I was curious to hear what she did with him pre-2003. Though not a Fritolli fan, I admit she does facetiousness well (in the above-mentioned Met Tito) and there must be a lot of people who like her, since she keeps cropping up in this role. It’s also no secret how I feel about AN, but I will keep it civil here. I didn’t know Karneus and Sheratt (although he’s still with ROH and I’ve either seen him or will see him in something), so I had no expectations.

Maestro runs a tight ship, the tempi are speedy, which brings to the forefront singers’ timing, which is outstanding. I’m this close to saying the recits were my favourite thing, everybody’s commitment was impressive. Maestro was a man of elegance, which permeated the productions he conducted.

Act I

Overture: expressively done – not too extreme, well balanced.

Ma che, sempre l’istesso…: these two sound rather posh; a pretty civilised argument, the kind that covers all sorts of resentments and insecurities. It’s funny how sometimes a production fits the location (I initially wanted to call this the Islington Tito).

Come ti piace, imponi: Sesto wants to make peace and starts ardently then continues dashingly romantic (tutto faro per te) with the unconditional support of the orchestra. Vitellia sounds very determined and practical. Sesto continues with the romantic tone (gia il tuo furror m’accende). Swoon inducing touch on the dueted battaglia in me spietata. I like how you each character keeps its dramatic individuality.

Annio is of the serious and alarmed kind. Fritellia is of course relishing the sarcasm of taking the piss out of his enthusiasm for Tito’s virtue. Annio is undeterred. Neither is Fritellia. Gotta give it to her, I love how she acts this bit.

Deh, se piacer mi vuoi: Fritolli is not a cold Vitellia as much as a selfish one. She can pull out the sexy moves when necessary. Of course it still feels like manipulation rather than unbridled passion – and the singing too comes across as very artificial. But then that’s what this aria is about.

Annio : Sesto: Sesto seems relieved to have a moment with buddy.

Deh, prendi un dolce amplesso: really nice vocal waltz balance between KK and VK. Must be the Ks.

March/Serbate, dei custodi: slow-ish and imperial. These marches developed from dances, did they not? Serbate is well paced and driven but the soprano-heavy kind. Davis seems to favour these.

Arse kissing: Publio and Tito spring up to present the tribute. They’re all right but rather declamatory. Ford is too, here, but gets more natural when describing the volcano eruption.

Tito, Sesto, Annio: when left alone, Annio urges Sesto to speak for him. Sesto obliges but Tito interrupts him as if the thought of Berenice is physically painful to him. He’s a soulful chap. He makes his announcement about Servilia, Sesto gets all tongue-tied, self-sacrificing Annio saves the day. I know what Sesto’s thinking: look at these two, paragons of virtue, the lot of them. Make me sick! For the second time today someone (Tito) tells Sesto to stop being so doubtful: he’s in gods’ favour now. A’ight but really, you shouldn’t have. I’m rather well off already, he says with a smile. Tito: But I’m so busy with admin duties, making you happy is my only joy!

Del piu sublime soglio: Ford’s Tito is one romantic chap. He makes this aria sound like the love song it can be. There is applause, but not enough for the subtle characterisation he’s pulling off. This Tito is unselfconsciously in love with his Sesto. The kind of tender love Kaufmann’s Tito was trying for but ended up in self parody.

Non ci pentiam: poor Annio, he sounds so sweet and sad. He’s one of those very earnest Annios, who is bewildered by moral ambiguities.

Ah, perdona al primo affetto: it’s easy to tell them apart. They’re both a bit too heavy for this but it’s not without merit.

Tito/Publio discuss business of state: I like the way Tito just brushes Publio off when Servilia shows up. This Tito knows how to be authoritative without going OTT. Excellent. His interaction with Servilia is equally well done – respectful but manly. AN is being girly.

Ah, se fosse intorno al trono: slow start echoes by a slow, pointed ending. This seems to be the way Davis does it and it’s not my favourite but once Ford starts nothing else matters. Gorgeous pp on sincero contrasted with muscular un vasto impero! Where the hell is Ford and why isn’t he singing more Tito?! I know it’s 13 years later but still. His interpretation is fabulous. Sane and romantic Tito is way underrated.

Vitellia/Servilia face-off: it’s not badly done. This is one of those productions populated by civilised people who tend to hide their true feelings behind snarkiness.

pre-Parto recit: Fritolli has an interesting way of negotiating this moment (very calculated). VK’s mia… vita? makes me chuckle every time. It reminds me that in spite of her fondness for serious characters she’s got a rather quirky sense of humour. Sesto has many doubts but is very eager to appear manly (and perhaps even a bit cheerful) in front of his sarcastic Vitellia. Civil argument again.

Parto: though the orchestra is stern, Sesto is keeping the partos manly – he doesn’t sound unsure as usual. The clarinet before the first guardami seems rather… glib. Indeed the guardami, tutto oblio! comes off grand, as if Sesto’s saying yes, yes, I’m good to avenge you, I do this kind of thing all the time, complete with sweeping hand gesture; the (very good) clarinet follows him with more glibness for i a venticarti io vano – it’s easy, like 1, 2, 3. He’s more flirty than conflicted and the orchestra is helping him serenade his icy mistress (how seductive are those quel che vorrai faros!). But then come a couple of surprisingly pleading guardamis, suggesting that maybe he’s not quite as tough as he wants Vitellia to think. It’s interesting how Sesto uses the first part of the aria to convince Vitellia he’ll do it and the second to convince himself. It’s very good but still not as good as the one and only from less than a year later 😉 the crowd loved it because they could not see into the future…

Vedrai, Tito, vedrai: this Vitellia is still thinking about her revenge, so she’s not really gleeful. She’s still bitter about being snubbed by Tito. Publio and Annio appear and Fritolli’s Cesare??? makes Vitellia sound properly taken aback. Again she must’ve pulled a great bewildered face, as there’s giggling from the crowd. Karneus’ Annio announces in his earnest voice that she’s Empress. That’s where I’d have burst into laughter. Maybe the surtitles were ahead?

Vengo…! Aspetatte… Sesto…!: this Vitellia sounds like she’s about to pass out. Good idea! Fritolli brushes by the high D, good support from Karneus and Sheratt.

Act I finale

The orchestra is anguished and brisk. Sesto comes in and tries his best to halt the proceedings, so as to get his bearings. Alas, there’s no time for that. The interplay between valore…? and orchestra is just spot on. It suitably grand and everybody gets into it. Vitellia is still looking out for number one. Taci, forsenato, deh, non te palesar! is said with sang froid. Maestro does a good job handling the moment.

Act II

Annio/Sesto recit: I always feel that it’s not like Annio to be so quick to find excuses for Sesto’s crime. But now it occurs to me – especially with Karnaeus’ very earnest Annio vs. VK’s shifty Sesto – that Sesto has that little phony emotional speech about wandering the wilderness as payment for his terrible crime, complete with watch over Tito, make sure this doesn’t happen again! just to make Annio feel bad for him. I’ve never thought about Sesto playing Annio but why not?

Torna de Tito a lato: Karneus’ Annio is as dignified and upright a friend as any could hope for. If this one’s plea can’t make up your mind to fall on the side of the good you’ve got some issues. Lovely technique.

Partir deggio o restar…?: but we know Sesto has issues, especially when sung by VK, who I doubt has ever played him straight up. When on his own, he’s rather cooly weighing the pros and cons of leaving. With the very self-serving Vitellia he acts all knight on white horse. When Publio asks for his sword he has no problems pretending not to know what that’s all about. Hm… Publio has no time for chit-chat, he’s very brisk. Sesto changes gear into victim-mode with a heartfelt alfin, tiranna... Eh heh. Gotta love manipulative Sestos!

Se al volto mai ti senti: the very decisive – even ruthless – Publio is playing right into Sesto’s hands. Sesto’s ardent rammenta chi t’adoras are contrasted with Publio’s strong vienis and this most cynical Vitellia is very slightly starting to crack. Maestro begins the trio relaxed enough but by the end this had turned into one of the most anguished Se al voltos I’ve heard, with a dramatic pause before the last – angelic (Vitellia is melting) – che crudeltas and a lot of rubato in general. Usually this is simply a beautiful, melancholic moment but in this case I don’t think there’s an ounce of drama unsqueezed.

Ah, grazie se rendano: the choir is quite scattered, I like it a bit more blended but maybe it’s not a bad idea. It’s a tricky moment, maybe not everybody’s caught on to the news? … or something. Ford’s Tito is very much alive and though obviously saddened by the turn of events, he doesn’t seem shaken to the core.

Tito doesn’t believe his Sesto is reo: he seeks reassurance from Publio.

Tardi s’avvede: there are better sung Tardis but I like Sheratt’s no-nonsense Publio. Finally a Publio who sounds like a Prefect of the Imperial Guards! Ok, one of the few. Davis seems to like these, as he had a powerful one in Robert Lloyd for the 1976 recording.

Tito still does not believe it: Ford does some lovely, original things with Tito’s lines. His partite! is downright scary. Annio has a reason to sound apprehensive. Publio is still strong and steady.

Tu fosti tradito: nice and detailed; Karneus’ very good technique serves her well with the high tessitura. Really enthusiastic applause!

Tito’s anguished recit: Ford starts cooking with gas. You know that bit in the middle where Tito thinks aloud about the peasant who has it so much easier – he thinks – because his relationships with his loved ones are way more straight forward? It’s such a hard thing to get right because it’s something out of 18th century corny pastoral imagination. I’ve met one or two of those peasants and their relationships with the loved ones are as fucked up as anyone else’s. Yet Ford fills it with genuine emotion, of which he has an impressive reserve: from gently sad to confused to angry. His Tito is feral without getting shouty or “opera-style declamatory” when asking everybody to fuck off.

Quello di Tito e il volto: the monologue trio – love them. They glance at each other and respond to one another in their heads. Maybe somebody someday directs this as a telepathic moment. Excellent job all three. Always good to hear a solid Publio.

The big Tito/Sesto face-off: 3min of ace balance of emotion between Tito and Sesto, gripping, nuanced interaction. I actually wanted them to go on reciting! Considering what comes next I have a hard time believing it myself. But it’s true. It’s something else.

When Tito and Sesto are left alone, Ford switches from an authoritarian tone to heartbreak for Ah, Sesto... It’s disarmingly simple. You feel an entire history between them in just those two words. And it’s got some very gay undertones, judging by how both Ford and VK continue.

Deh, per questo instante solo: VK mixes it up in every production; out of her Sestos I’ve heard so far2 this is the heroic one – although not heroic in the good guy sense. You get the feeling that this one can more than hold his own in a fist fight.

There is an understandable tendency to bank on the sheer beauty of this rondo – especially if your Sesto is the gentle, melancholic kind. Luckily that’s never the case with VK (one thing her male characters have in common is liveliness). Whilst not nearly as cynically manipulative as her later Zurich one, this Sesto isn’t sweet either, which she emphasises with some very dissonant touches on sdegno, vero and pietade, the likes of which I haven’t heard from anyone else (but which had been hinted at along the way in this production). Here is the moment when this Sesto realises that sticking with Vitellia doesn’t actually gain him much if he’s really lost Tito. Imagine fireworks of anguish – that’s how this ends. The public was so ecstatic they didn’t let the orchestra finish. I know how that feels: you sit on your hands for 10-15 seconds before you can’t hold it anymore. Lucky bastards 😉

Tito makes up his mind: Ford is a great actor. I’ve never heard these recits done quite like he does them.

Se all’impero: the cool thing about Ford is that his voice is both agile and dark. Accordingly, Maestro lets the orchestra flex some muscle. But Ford can sound equally vulnerable and fearless when tackling the coloratura of doom. The harpsichord sounds like an accordion (the Se all’impero polka!). Deserved more applause.

Vitellia and Sesto’s people: are talking about whatever. What I really wanted was for Tito to run after Sesto and tell him all was forgiven. Then the both of them would have a long true heart-to-heart and a (manly) love duet. And we could skip to eterni dei and troncate, gods, his days, if he’ll let another manipulative woman steal his Sesto again. That kind of thing.

S’altro che lagrime: there are sounds coming out of AN’s mouth of which the top notes aren’t bad and the low ones are porridge.

Ecco il punto…: Fritolli’s recit voice is slightly more interesting than the singing one. Am I convinced?

Non piu di fiori: she has a good range, hence why I suppose she sings Vitellia a lot.

Act II finale

Tito, yay!: the choir is a teensy bit wonky. It’s not that the sopranos are too forward but they are kinda… something until the eterni dei bit, where all comes together as it should. Maestro makes it sweeping and majestic and air-conducting worthy3. Tito is sad. Vitellia does the right thing. Eh, I don’t believe in her goodness. Ford is still strong and refreshingly human. He pulls the amazing feat of making Tito sound completely believable. He’s neither camp, nor neurotic, nor limp, nor fatherly. He’s simply a dude with lots of responsibilities and a warm heart. Wonderful.

So now I know what I want for Christmas: a proper Tito sequel, with more Tito and Sesto and less of everybody else. Tito on the beach. Not necessary by Glass.

I’ve paced myself poorly again this month and wrote on three different Titi without quite finishing any of them. This one was closest to finish so it got posted. I feel like it might have needed more polish here and there, especially the finales as well as more consideration on Davis’ conducting compared to the other two Titi of his I have.

  1.  Is this the production where Karneus narrowly missed being squished by a giant A? Or a watermelon… or a guillotine? I think I should stop reading random Tito reviews – or start taking notes. 
  2. I’m still missing the one with Gens and Castronovo, but I’ll get to it. 
  3. How amazing must it be to conduct the Act II finale at ROH? 

About dehggial

Mozart/Baroque loving red dragon

Posted on July 31, 2015, in 1001 musings on la clemenza di tito, acting in opera, audio only, mozart, those two austrians and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. think i found my saturday music for working! i listened to this 2x in 2010 but was so new to opera in general and this one in particular, couldnt focus on anything except comparison with the one! i did recall smorgy hinted some A nearly slicing Annio in half (yet so clueless at the time didnt get the point at all :-D)

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