Antonio Caldara’s La clemenza di Tito
It’s 27 January again, but instead of a Mozart post let’s look at something that makes Mozart look about 1m times better. Not that his legacy needs my help…
Given the continuous popularity of my post on Caldara and Hasse Vò disperato a morte, I thought an entry entirely devoted to Caldara’s take on this work might make a nice change. That it took me almost 2 years to complete it is another thing…
Tito: Mya Fracassini
Vitellia: Ornella Pratesi
Sesto: Eleonora Contucci
Annio: Patrizia Zanardi
Servillia: Lucrezia Raffaelli
Publio: Aurio Tomicich
Conductor: Sergio Balestracci
Orchestra della Stagione Armonica | Coro della Camerata Polifonica Viterbese (2010)
This is the first incarnation of Tito, premiering on 4 November 1734. It’s very much of its time and this recording sounds faithful to that time, for better or worse.
Although I love Baroque and I like some Caldara too, I found this dreadfully boring. I sat through to the bitter end (twice) just to make sure I got what Mozart meant when he thanked Mazzola for turning his Clemenza into a real opera. That implies Wolfie too was bored senseless with the earlier versions from which he had to draw inspiration for his very well paid commission. It’s likely that he was more familiar with Gluck’s, Hasse’s and Mysliveček’s takes1.
Overture: a very sober, typical Baroque affair. Puts the seria in opera seria.
Ma che, sempre l’istesso: it’s pretty much as in Wolfie’s version, except it also includes the text of what later became Come ti piace, imponi through to Deh, se piacer mi vuoi. Now I’ve never had many problems with the recits in Tito, but thank you, Mazzola and Wolfie, for that lovely duet and for breaking up the nagging.
Deh, se piacer mi vuoi: Vitellia sounds all tra-la-la-la, quit yer bitching, big boy, whilst I seduce you with pretty trills. Sesto is probably all wow, she’s blinding me with her top notes, should I ask her to dance? In other words, nada drama. I especially love2 the focus on rhyming questo with molesto.
We jump to Annio asking Sesto for his sister’s hand. They go on a lot longer than in Mozart’s version, with Annio not being too sure of Tito’s reaction. Because of that, we get no BFF duettino here.
Chorus of sycophants: this will later become Serbate, dei custodi. Typical Baroque chorus – stately and samey but not terrible although it does overstay its welcome. It sounds similar to Mozart’s although the one we know and love is a lot more lively and less well behaved, I guess. This one here moves like a funeral ode and there’s no march, even a funeral one.
Publio introduces Tito in a gentle voice a la Kurt Rydl. Whoa, Tito’s sung by a soprano…! Like I said before, please keep Sesto and Annio sung by mezzos but, err, I don’t see why Tito should be sung by a woman… that being said, Fracassini is doing her darnest to sing in an imperial manner. I don’t dislike her tone but it feels a bit unbalanced to have only one male voice in the mix. Tito, Publio and the BFFs talk about the vassals’ tribute and the natural disaster du jour. Tito gets all generous etc.
Chorus of sycophants: reprise their Serbate, dei custodi, as if to say we told you so, Tito is such a wise ruler.
What follows is similar to the lines in the one Tito we all need. Tito orders all to leave save for the BFFs, Annio wants Sesto to intercede for him, Sesto starts with hey, Tito, what about that Berenice, eh? Tito says it was the hardest thing he ever had to do etc. He finally shares with Sesto that he wants to marry Servillia. Much cor blimey from the BFFs. Annio gets all omg, Servillia rocks so Tito asks him to give her the good news.
Del piu sublime soglio: is rather neat and sprightly with high pitched violins, but in a – wait for it – stately manner. It’s like Tito was jumping for joy in a carefully choreographed way. It’s a da capo aria so Tito spends 3min repeating his couple of lines. I like the organ.
Servillia is laughing in a girlish manner that Annio finds irrestible. Oh, no, he has to give her the terrible news. Tormento etc. Their conversation runs along the same lines we know.
Ah, perdonna il primo affetto: instead of a duet we’ve got a pained aria for Annio whilst Servillia is patiently thinking of her answer which comes right up. It’s a bit of dud for my money.
More reassuring via recit. I love you, I love you, too, no matter what happens.
To fosti il primo ogetto: so now we know Mazzola & Wolfie conflated the two arias in a duet many generations have been grateful for ever since 1791. It’s ok, but I have the feeling I’ve been hearing the same chord progression for the past 40min. Servillia isn’t pained as much as reassuring Annio of her feelings and constanza.
Publio and Tito talk about sedition. Tito says he don’t give a shit etc. Servillia shows up and Tito seems very pleased for the change of subject. Of course Servillia says she’s honoured to be chosen for the imperial bed but… she’s missing the most important organ – her heart. That sneaky thief Annio done stole it. Tito sounds very dignified in the face of such honesty. He signs Servillia and Annio’s marriage contract on the spot. But! no Ah, se fosse intorno al trono? Aw, maaaan. I was looking forward to it.
Instead, we jump straight to a presumably snooping Vitellia. There’s no catfight, just a very scorned, twice passed-over princess. Innocent Sesto finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. He’s all hey, babe, wassup? Never been worse, you big dummy, says Vitellia. Punish Tito now or else! Sesto doesn’t see why. Be a hero, she suggests. He’s not interested. How about nookie? Kill the usurper and I love you longtime. Oh, now we’re talking. Say no more, says Sesto, let the bastard die. Somebody give me a dagger! …oh crap, what am I saying? – vacillation on his part, eye-rolls for Vitellia etc. You suck, you weakling, you moron! She beats him up with her handbag. Opera seria meets Benny Hill.
Parto: …so odd. Try saying parto as high as you can, that’s how it starts. The rhythm is also funny and there’s a long trill on vorrai in quel che vorrai faro. I mean it’s not absurd, vorrai is important but isn’t faro even more so? Caldara knows it, so faro gets its own, shorter trill. Then there’s another trill on piace from sara qual piu ti piace on the ritornello so that it rhymes emphatically with pace, which is repeated. Okie-dokie, but the momentum is lost. The guardami! e tutto oblio bit is introduced and there’s a very elaborate trill on the volo from e a vendicarti io volo. It’s pretty cool in itself but the drama… what drama? Remember Wolfie’s guardami!? There’s drama right there in the music – twice and in very different ways. Caldara reprises the first lines and now spins faro with a satisfying trill. Aha, he knew it and wanted to save the best for last but had to use up his quota of trills per aria. There’s no qual poter, oh dei, donaste alla belta, which is a shame, because it’s my favourite (even if your Sesto sucks you can still rely on the clarinet).
Verdict: I heard it three times in my life and that’s enough. I don’t think I’d have thought too differently had there been no Mozart Parto.
Vedrai, Tito, vedrai: Vitellia sounds evil here, classic cliffhanger with the villain rubbing her hands in vicious glee. Publio, alone, shows up with the good news. Vitellia’s all oh, I was unfair to Tito. He sees reason at last.
Vengo… Aspetatte!… Sesto!!!!: Instead of a great trio we get a solo aria for Vitellia in which she sounds really chipper. There are some octave jumps and so it does somewhat remind of Vengo… only not so much. I think Mozart also used similar music for Vitellia’s part in Se al volto, it seems familiar. To its credit, I like it better than Parto. Pratesi has ringing top notes.
Thus ends Act I and we’ve got two more to go. Two?! What the hell more could have happened?
O dei, che smanie e questa? Contucci is tormented all right. Given the meager accompaniment it’s up to her to carry the moment. Luckily it’s not very long, Annio shows up soon. Text is of course along the same lines, except Annio goes on a bit longer pondering on the meaning of Sesto’s words. Servillia, Publio and Vitellia enter with lines along the same ones we know. Vitellia goes on a bit longer. Publio and Servillia chat some more. Chat? Well, there goes the momentum.
Sia lontano ogni cimento: Publio sings his mission statement. It’s melancholic and dignified and not bad. Tomicich shows off some nice low notes.
Sesto and Vitellia run into each other and sparks fly. By which I mean they start fighting. My Italian ain’t all that and I couldn’t find the original libretto but it becomes very clear that Vitellia has the gall to turn around and accuse Sesto of offing amato Tito! Sesto is all wow… wow… just… wow. Time for a good ol’ chorus of poor Sesto.
Next up the mega biotch has an aria all about her ire at such a treacherous act. Hello, chica, what was the aria you sang just before this one? Oh, yea, about how happy you was when Tito got his. Get the lions now.
Come potesti, o Dio: a proper two-faced aria, the outraged bits being cut short by slow, introspective ones. It’s like she’s belittling Sesto in public whilst feeling panicked within. The music is pretty good but the structure – and emotional effect – is remarkable. The most interesting bit so far. Pratesi does very well.
Sesto keeps feeling bad but not quite as bad as he should, given what just transpired. Annio rushes to tell him Tito is safe, Sesto is happy. He admits to his crime, Annio of course wants to help him and the conversation continues along the same lines we know but longer.
In the meanwhile, Tito laments (in grand manner) his own lot at still having enemies in Rome after putting up such a magnanimous face. This is the place where confusion ensues when, due to Annio’s wearing Sesto’s bloody cloak, Tito thinks he’s the traitor. Servilia is gobsmacked, Annio naively confused. There is a lot of talk.
Tito has a sprightly noble aria about pavento and tradimento. Once again Fracassini sounds solid on the low end and credible as supreme ruler, good trills. It’s a pretty good aria.
Annio needs to do some damage control as Servilia has momentarily lost faith in him. It’s not going too well, she launches into an angry (bird) aria – Non odo gli accenti. It’s ok, we get the usual trills and outrage is well expressed. Annio sits in a corner and sulks while she chides him. After she storms off Annio has a short moan about the situation. Sesto shows up, feeling bad for mixing his BFF in this mess. It’s his turn to sit in a corner and sulk whilst
Annio gets a melancholy aria – Ch’io parto reo, lo vedi. which seems to be along the lines of ok, I’m going down for this for you, make sure you don’t forget me, buddy.
What follows is the Partir deggio, o restar…? moment in the original. Vitellia comes out from around a column and pushes Sesto towards the backstreets. She sounds like Vitellia normally does at this point. A determined Publio says gimme your sword! then Vitellia shouts o, colpo fatale!, Sesto: ingrata, addio…! etc. But instead of a trio we get Sesto laying out his passive aggressive minor key lover’s testament:
Se mai senti spirarti sul volto: it’s not a bad aria. Dejection comes off well, almost heartbreaking in the trills, which are by far the best things about it. The vocal line is well supported but elsewhere the orchestration sounds pedestrian. As usual the thing overstays its welcome.
It’s the point where Publio and Tito discuss the treason. Publio mourns the situation, long boohoos. Tito is dignified, ready to take on the terrible situation, though he still thinks Sesto is innocent. The phrasing of not everybody is as honest as Tito is funny (overly theatrical).
Tardi s’avvede: tardi, tardi s’avvede. Lots of trilling on mancar. It’s the musical equivalent of boohoo. Tomicich has a nice voice, the music too much violin for a bass aria and badly overstays its welcome.
Annio, che recchi?: same as we know it, Annio is squeaky: omg, Tito, I’m gutted… Boohoo Publio says the least gleeful told you so. Among all this I do like Tito’s dignified manner. Lo so, partite isn’t fierce but I don’t mind it; rather justifiably upset.
Pieta, Signor, di lui aka Tu fosti tradito: still squeaky but very different and apparently difficult (some things that sound an awful lot like octave jumps). Annio gets a high pitched shout which is done with lots of aplomb by Zanardi. Luckily not too long and more varied than Tardi, tardi. It’s not good but neither is horrendous.
Tito’s anguished recit/Tito : Sesto: a, si, lo scelerato mora! Mora…? – still anguished. Fracassini is pretty good. Publio brings Sesto and Tito sounds unsure of his resolve. Sesto muses about Tito’s dolcezza usata and we muse about how nice Quello di Tito e il volto would’ve been right about now. Sesto recits the gist of that trio and self flagelates whilst Tito tells custodi to leave them alone. Sorgi, infelice, says Tito, what did you hope to gain by offing me? Confide in your friend, the Emperor isn’t here etc. Sappi dunque… che fu… Contucci’s recit skills don’t make for compelling drama though the text is the same here. She sounds terribly shattered. Fracassini is much better when Tito answers Sesto that he’s going to have his punishment. Please, one last kiss, says Sesto. Nope, go away is Tito’s answer.
Vo disperato a morte: back then they did anguish in a way that to contemporary ears comes terribly close to perky – why the major key? It’s quite the woohoo! Tito, put me out of my misery once and for all! Lalala. The upshot is it’s to the point and the swinging stacatto = catchy.
Good moment to give Deh, per questo instante solo another spin. Something to ponder: the original has an extra act but Sesto’s big moment is about 2min vs. Mozart’s 7min+.
Tito rehashes the Sesto mora! bit, vacillates – all in his honourable manner. I must admit Fracassini has the right touch for the magnanimous ruler. We hear Tito tearing up the death warrant: better be thought of as too clement! Publio comes and moans some more about poor (he thinks) Sesto. Hey, this Publio is way too concerned about Sesto.
Se all’impero: minor key! who knew?! So they could use minor keys when they wanted. Weird. Or me daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaate un altro cor. I tells ya, the trill on altro is the better option, though I’m not saying the accent on date does not make logical sense.
Vitellia : Publio: the text we know, done pretty much the same way.
Ecco il punto, Vitellia: major U-turn, feels more so than usual, what with her last aria of you horrible man! how could you??? Than she goes away. Cue in the choir:
Che del ciel: very soprano heavy with just the strings to back it up. It’s actually not bad, though I don’t know that Caldara had grand in his vocabulary.
Wait, it’s not over! Recit time: Tito prepares his big announcement. He chides Sesto in a parental manner. Vitellia confesses, oh stelle! from Annio, Servilia and – amusingly – Publio. I mean it’s funny the way he joins in, sounds very theatrical again. Fracassini forgives all and the choir rejoices.
In conclusion: The whole thing feels really small in scale. It was written for courtly celebrations as if to be heard in someone’s lounge. It’s like Monteverdi with all the fun excised but with (not very inventive) extra orchestration. As much as I like buddy Metastasio, I think I like him more for creating the premise than for making it extra noodly. The singers are more than acceptable but I don’t recommend this version, unless you really like Viennese Baroque of the 1730s.
This is as good a place as any for a list of every version of La clemenza di Tito: