Tito sans mezzos (Nancy, May 2014)

This is a countertenor happy Tito, which is anathema dangerous territory for mezzo lovers. Luckily (for me) what we’ve got here is two countertenors I rate very highly. But will it float?

titonancyTito: Bernard Richter
Vitellia: Sabina Cvilak
Sesto: Franco Fagioli
Annio: Yuriy Mynenko
Servilia: Bernada Bobro
Publio: Miklós Sebestyén
Conductor: Kazem Abdullah | Opera National de Lorraine
Director: John Fuljames | co-production Opera North/Opera National de Lorraine

Overture: never heard of Mr Abdullah before but I’ve no objections to his tackling of the overture. It’s brisk, perhaps unoriginal but modern sounding at least.

Ma che, sempre l’istesso: I was curious to see how a man would deal with Sesto’s uneasy diplomacy. Quite surprisingly (or not?1) he does very similar in spirit to how mezzos do it. Sesto comes off as far from macho and a bit embarrassed. Vitellia is cold and nagging but not too much; garden variety domineering.

Come ti piace imponi: Sesto gets rather sexy on tutto faro per te, I like that. Franco has an interesting manner of singing certain important words in a brisk, urgent manner where others might choose a slower take. In this case it’s m’accende and it works. He goes slower and sexier on alla mia fe and that works too. His Vitellia isn’t matching him, though, which underlines their disconnect. Due to the positioning of the bootlegger or because the orchestra was loud, there is a volume contest going on between the voices and the strings. As a result, the oppressive downward arpeggios in the low strings behind fa mille affetti insieme come off more poignant than usual. I like them, so thank you, bootlegger (or fate).

Annio : Vitellia : Sesto: Annio is enthusiastic as usual, Vitellia full of irony, Sesto repressed.

Deh, se piacer mi vuoi: Maestro could’ve used more rubato. Sometimes it feels too quick. Vitellia is sure of herself – here, rock solid in her confidence – but she could play a little more with Sesto’s feelings. Cvilak has a good, full middle for Vitellia. It gets a bit muddy in the lower register. She tries for playfulness but her voice isn’t the most colourful/elastic. The supporting strings sound a bit dry. Some people’s attention might’ve wondered as the appluse starts tentatively then grows a bit. It’s like remembering Vitellia is pretty important, you know?

Annio : Sesto: Annio: Anyway, let’s become brothers… in law! Sesto: Let’s! Screw Vitellia.

Deh, prendi un dolce amplesso: what with two countertenors close in tone, Annio and Sesto sound a bit too similar. I understand there is a camp that wants to replace every mezzo in every trouser role (Rossini included) with countertenors, even when the roles have been written for women. I’m not in that camp. Trouser roles are cool, some of the plummiest parts that showcase the versatile beauty of the mezzo voice and that lush quality that no other fach has. Two countertenors in this opera, even two I like a lot, is starting to feel like overkill. [ / rant over ].

But since I want to position myself at least halfway on the road to objectivity, they sound rather nice in this waltziest of duettinos.

March/Serbate dei custodi: very rhythmical/baroque take on the march, which follows very nicely after the duettino; full blooded, bright and positive. Super speed returns for Serbate dei custodi, but I can’t say it suffers much. It’s just that I like it and I want it around for a while.

Publio : Annio kiss some imperial arse: the high and the low, all marvel at Tito’s majesty. Tito is earnest and imperial but also thoughtful when he has his brilliant idea about using the loot for the earthquake relief fund. Publio and Annio marvel some more.

We get a reprise of the march, during which I wonder what stage action they got in the house.

Annio wants Sesto to intervene for him, Sesto complies in an unsure voice, Tito is pretty upset or just noble and rambles on a bit until the fateful announcement regarding marrying Servilia. Super noble Annio saves his buddy and marvels again – now at Servilia’s magnificence. Mynenko is suspiciously good at this. Send some upright roles his way. Sesto mumbles about Tito’s being way too generous but it’s hard to say if he’s embarrassed or licking his chops because Franco sounds very samey in his recits.

Del piu sublime soglio: it’s not easy to launch into this, because the tenor starts all exposed. Richter begins fearlessly and continues in a surprisingly dark but pleasant tone. I’d’ve liked more of a stars in his eyes manner but houghtfulness is nice too, fits this earnest Tito.

Annio : Servilia: this is a bumbling young man in love moment for Annio. Mynenko does very well and I have to admit he’s a better voice actor than Franco. He and Bobro mix quite beautifully. A bit more flow from the orchestra would’ve suited me better.

Servilia : Tito: seems like Tito springs from behind a column, as they get right into their Tito, let me tell you a secret moment. Bobro is all right, Tito is impressed and enthusiastic to find someone so honest.

Ah, se fosse intorno al trono: it’s kicked off by a marching duck very careful bassoon. Live a little, buddy. Maybe s/he’s self conscious at how ducky his reed sounds tonight. Richter gets all Italianate on ma saria felicita, which I like. Get as Italianate as you want on this! You’re basically in love. Nice rubato on affanno. There’s a bit of strain on impEro. Still, pretty good job Richter, he’s on the right track.

Vitellia : Servilia: Vitellia is more ironic than full on bitchy and Servilia actually laughs in her face. Go Servilia, but you’re not helping big bro. Vitellia works herself up.

pre-Parto recit: Sesto sounds unsure, Vitellia gets a tender victim and latches onto him. She doesn’t have to do much and thus seems like she’s acting out of boredom and because she has just been slighted by Servilia rather than burning fury against Tito. Franco steps it up a bit and conveys Sesto’s own anger and confusion and doubt. Vitellia flails about which seems to focus Sesto, though, hm, I’m not quite convinced. It’s an argument all right but not particularly intense, somewhat all over the shop.

Parto: hm, unsure partos, pretty clarinet. Again the strings from this position sound overly syncopated, which is quite distracting. It all rolls on at low intensity, with the clarinet the most focused and consistent. It’s hard, because it’s meandering, so every ounce of intensity matters.

It was a proper ear opener hearing it this way and discovering how much I take the first 6min of mood for granted. There is no question that Franco dispatches the coloratura post haste and with no problems whatsoever. But streto aside, this is a mood aria and Franco seems somewhat cautious or maybe unclear about what he wants to deliver. I don’t particularly enjoy the rather too closed way he pronounces the vowels, especially o as uh. He’s Argentinian, so he has grown up with the right o for Italian. He must have his reasons for closing so much but it’s not pretty. Sounds like he’s using mixed voice pretty much through this so it’s possible it’s taking its toll. I wish I knew. Still, his fans were in ecstacy.

Having heard Franco live in Mozart I can tell how unused we are/I am with the countertnor voice in later Mozart. Whereas in something like Mitridate it works very well, from Idomeneo on things seem to have changed. And still, these roles were written for castrati – I guess their style had changed too. Baroque stylings don’t seem to do Mozart justice. Also, though the streto shouldn’t be sluggish, I don’t think it should be supersonic either (it’s not a bravura aria). Sesto’s mad all right, but mad with love.

Vedrai, Tito, vedrai…: Vitellia is appropriately gleeful. The men bring the good news, she’s confused – very good Cesare…?

Vengo! Apetatte… Sesto!: quite possibly the speediest take on this trio I have heard, yet the extreme speed shaves off some of the anguish. Hey, Maestro, it’s all about anguish! Nice, eardrum piercing high D.

Act I finale

More recit doesn’t favour Franco and since recits do convey drama in Mazzola’s Tito, we do have a problem. There’s a lot for Sesto to be saying and the range of colours is limited. I have a hard time following the dramatic arc and instead I start to tire of the constantly very high pitch coupled with his mumbling. Things get better when Sesto has a bit of a tune right before Annio’s entrance.

Maestro is right in his intention of keeping this brisk but I may be too used to slower speeds. The tempo is getting to me. He slows it down for the tailend, where the rather high pitched chorus sounds very abrasive, more so than usual. It’s not a bad idea, though aurally not a favourite.

Act II

Annio : Sesto: Annio and Sesto come off as slightly alarmed.

Torna di Tito a lato: Mynenko does a very good job with Annio’s plea. I like the gentle, reasonable take (don’t scare him off but stir him in the right direction).

is this hot? Sesto looks like he’s after her wallet, though Vitellia appears rather ticklish (pic from forumopera.com)

Partir deggio…?: here Sesto sounds more confused than before. Vitellia comes in all hush-hush and tries to get him going. His answer is… matter of fact. It is possible to play Sesto as uncomplicated. Well, just about. If he’s supposed to be very young (2014 Champs Elysees Tito) and his chemistry with Vitellia is high octane. Franco is fitted with rather complicated hair and a leather jacket in this production, though neither makes him look very young but at least he sounds young. I can’t comment on the chemistry as I haven’t seen it with me own eyes and the pictures seem to me neutral. Vocally, though, I ain’t feeling sparks fly.

Moving on, Publio himself feels chatty rather than menacing in the way he lets Sesto know the game is up. Ingrata… addio! is the only moment infused with appropriate emotion.

Se al volto mai ti senti: Franco does beautifully. A countertenor Sesto sounds ethereal and this is Sesto at his most supernaturally detached. Good support from Vitellia and Publio. Maestro keeps to his brisk manner.

Ah grazie si rendano: the orchestra slides smoothly into this and gives gentle support, the choir sounds lovely in itself, enters softly and conveys that air of otherworldliness and uncertainty just before Tito’s re-appearance. However, I think there is a jarring disconnect, with the choir behind the orchestra. Given that it happens in this context it’s kind of fitting yet kind of wrong. Tito’s entrance is pretty good.

Publio : Tito: Publio sounds very relaxed – hey, Tito, I’ve taken care of everything, the traitor is under key, get cracking with the death warrant so we can watch the games.

Tardi s’avvede: Sebestyén has a proper bass voice. It’s not particularly elastic or interesting dramatically but solid rendition.

Tito : Publio : Annio: Richter is a pretty good actor, I like his lo so! Partite! It’s sane but you feel his anger. The other two seem polite if firm around him.

Tu fosti tradito: tricky aria that sounds tricky even from such an accomplished singer as Mynenko. Competent as he comes off, Annio is not the role to best showcase Mynenko’s strengths. He’s more of a middle to chest countertenor, his top is a bit acidic.

Tito’s anguished recit: it’s a bit declamatory but Richter does try to go for nuance and he especially manages some emotive ppps. The accompaniment is a bit wooly but Tito comes off as heartbroken enough.

Quello di Tito e il volto: Franco sounds beautifully ethereal again, Richter satifyingly bewildered, Sebestyén either can’t project or he was on the other side of the room (possible, as Vitellia had the same problem at the very beginning of the opera). It speeds up as usual (for this performance) and ends somewhat too quick, as if having run out of time. Ok, so Maestro does rubato, just not in a way that I can follow.

Tito : Sesto: Richter is pretty into it in a chummy manner (just bromance) and Franco tries but the lack of range in recits severly limits his emotional palette and I have to strain to pick what he’s going for.

Deh, per questo instante solo: I must once again remind all that Mozart and Mazzola’s version of Tito is not a baroque opera. Extreme anything is not advised, though it sometimes flirts with Sturm und Drang. Here we get too much speed in the streto. Not enough rubato. I know I’m obsessed with rubato but I love it when you get it in this aria – and, in fact, in Tito in general. What is Sesto’s intention here? He’s already said it’s only fair if he gets the ax. Franco sounds beautiful and sings correctly but I just ain’t feelin’ the internal drama.

Maestro observes the slower moments. Still, judging by how quickly the orchestra gets in 4th gear halfway into Sesto’s last dolor, he just wants to get them over with so we can reach the best part which is zoomed through so fast I can feel the breeze in my hair and the slur in the orchestra. The audience has obviously come to see Franco so they love and focus on the high speeds he can negotiate like an olympic skater.

Tito makes up his mind: once again Richter pulls some good contrasts in mood. I like that he stays conflicted even after he reaches his decision.

Se all’impero: from where the bootlegger was sat the orchestra comes off disproportionately string-y. Richter is more (earnest) everyman than regal. Nice and appropriate little ppp trill on timor. The killer coloratura isn’t as accurate as it could be but we all know it’s a vanquisher of warriors.

Vitellia : Publio: Vitellia is alarmed, Publio perhaps a bit peeved on escluso io fui but not unsympathetic. This Prefect of the Guard may have not caught on to the greater scheme.

Vitellia : Servilia: Annio: I liked the thoughtful way Cvilak says Annio, non son’ Augusta ancor… but I think Vitellia should come off as less congenial and logical. She’s not all bad, yes, but anyoone who was plotting murder just an act ago will keep an undercurrent of tension throughout.

S’altro che lagrime: waltzy, melancholic, almost Strauss. I liked the take though Bobro’s voice is a bit shrill (but non giovera was wisely attacked and she did not sound bad there at all).

Ecco il punto…/Non piu di fiori: there’s something very attractive about Cvilak’s middle that fits Vitellia’s compelling charisma. Her lower register isn’t as reliable and she gets a bit shrill towards the end (Vitellia is allowed to sound ugly, yet I was iffy about her pitch at the top in very exposed moments and a harsh gear change right before the nightmarish low G = reminds you how bloody difficult this role is).

This is still a competent rendition as strong emphasis is put on her strengths – chief among them projection, used to underline the most intense moments. The drama was pretty well done. She’s a rather rational Vitellia, she understands her own folly. Beautiful tone for the basset horn, though I would’ve liked it to take on a more descriptive role.

Act II finale

It’s well done, a bit speedier in general than I’m most comfortable with but spot on in intention. There is perhaps a fear among conductors that Tito can drag or sound remote so it’s understandable that they try to counteract this by putting the pedal to the metal. The chorus was surprisingly good in sound, though again it was slightly ahead of the orchestra in the finale. Richter has a typical Tito voice. It’s bright and honest – perhaps even a bit naive – sounding. Reminds us that it was the same singer who created Don Ottavio. Virtuous to the bone, a little on the pompous side. Richter brings all those qualities here.

I think the problem countertenors face in Mozart is longer lines over a meatier orchestration. The way I see it at this point, in Baroque everything is a bit more rhythmical and jumpy, calling for elasticity of voice and pitch precision. Here the line meanders a lot and wants steadiness infused with local colour. (Lyric) mezzos have more heft to their voices and more range to freely play with.

I can’t wrap this up without admitting I was disappointed with his vocal acting/diction. I’m not usually a stickler for diction but here I found it marred his interpretation. Sesto is an exciting character and in this case he comes off flat, like a chap who grimly puts up with things for no discernable reason, not even death wish. Whilst listening I wondered what Xavier Sabata would’ve done instead, as I have been very impressed with his recit skills. So I have to retract what I said (even to Franco) about wanting to hear him in this role.

Eterni dei was full of drama and immediacy, I liked it. Maestro is spot on in this kind of situation. There was a bit more ping in the soprano area than I normally find ideal but the entertwining of different sections of the choir was exquisite. A satisfying ending to a decent stab at Tito (b-boom-tch, I know, but I always wanted to sneak that one it).


  1. I will refrain from musing on the existence or lack thereof of a male brain/female brain but I did think about it. 
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About dehggial

opera lover with a predilection for Mozart and Baroque

Posted on October 29, 2015, in 1001 musings on la clemenza di tito, audio only, countertenors, mozart and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 25 Comments.

  1. Fagioli simply has bad diction and very unfocused pronunciation (in Italian or otherwise). He can get a pass (by some people at least) when singing virtuoso baroque opera arias, but it becomes a real problem when tackling roles that go beyond having a wide range and fast notes. (Note: I actually believe you CAN’T sing baroque opera, where the affetti and the way of expressing them are everything, in bad Italian, but when you go for the pyrotecnics Fagioli is great, and for many people that’s sufficient).

    This is actually a point where he differs, to his detriment, from the singer he’s most compared to: Cecilia Bartoli, which is a keen musician and has very good diction and nicer colors.

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    • Hm, unfortunately I think you’re right. It didn’t seem so bad in Idomeneo live but here… I’m seeing him again in 2 weeks and I’ll pay attention to this side of things.

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  2. i’m going through this list now whenever i listen to Tito (like now.., just made it to “Non più di fiori” <– the clarinet tune is major sticking).. Earlier, when i made it to JDD’s “parto”, am reminded again by (first my feeling on this aria long time ago when heard live and now by) your remark on the first 6min of it (for me even earlier, the first 3 phrases), and i was thinking how this bit of music can throw you off the chair wondering what Sesto wants / who Sesto is.. (JDD’s was quite sure in my case, so i was set to move forward without searching 10 parto’s on tube 🙂 ) . I was also struck by how much “lingering” <– long notes Sesto has during duet/trio/recit, and JDD’s came through very expressive! (i wont reveal who Vitellia is :D)

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  3. Regie, or Not Regie?

    I am intrigued (as I always am) by your review. Where can one obtain this recording?

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  4. Only just saw this. And I totally see where you’re coming from about Franco. His diction is more miss than hit on occasion and I think that’s one area where he really needs to do a bit of work. But hey, I’m one of those undemanding people who go for the firework Baroque stuff, so what do I know about finesse? 😉 I’ll be honest and say that I haven’t listened to this properly yet, but it sounds as if his Deh per questo istante here was much less beautiful than the version he did in concert last year, which we discussed a while ago. That’s a shame.

    Very pleased to hear that Yuriy made a good impression on you though. Personally I would say that I really don’t find his and Franco’s voices that similar (which proves nothing more than that I’ve listened to them too much), but I see your point. If you have someone with that kind of voice singing Sesto, you probably need a voice like Valer’s as Annio to set it off – that naive kind of sweetness which would suit the character very well. And I agree that, although Yuriy doesn’t have quite the same coloratura punch, he does have a bit more characterisation in his voice than Franco, based on what I’ve heard in other roles. (Mainly Crude furie, let’s face it. His swank there is just wonderful. Franco will have to do very well on Friday to beat that.)

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    • By similar I mean they’re both chestier, so, yea, a sweeter, higher singer would work better for Annio.

      It is interesting to find what works and what doesn’t and ponder on the whys. But if Franco wants to get into Mozart he definitely needs to brush up on diction and characterisation. I know he actually has the colours so it’s a shame when they don’t get used.

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  5. rummaging through your old posts and having fun.. instead of continuing with my paper.. but i better leave this post right now before my fuming gets worse 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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