Tito in Minnesota (2002)
This May I came across a brand new – to me, of course – performance with one of my favourites in the title role – Bruce Ford. It’s from earlier in the same year he’d sung Tito at ROH. I liked that turn of his so much I wanted to hear this as well.
Back in May I started with Act I like most would then got distracted by shiny things and I returned to it yesterday via Act II. I surprised myself by finishing it in a couple of hours. But then there was half of Act I left to go and mum was itching to chat and since she’s feeding me I thought it wiser to put the laptop away.
Tito: Bruce Ford
Vitellia: Brenda Harris
Sesto: Susanne Mentzer
Annio: Lori Kaye Miller
Servilia: Anna Rodriguez
Publio: Alfred Walker
Conductor: Harry Bicket | Orchestra and Chorus of the Minnesota Opera
live relay 26 January 2002 / stage direction by Stephen Lawless
Now in spite of Ford, Mentzer and Bicket, this is not a big house performance, so it’s wiser not to let one’s expectations run wild.
Ma che, sempre l’istesso: Harris darkens her recit voice for some reason, not to particularly pleasant results. She is rather whiny than dominant and there’s some adjusting she seems to be going through, like she’s trying to overcome a cold. It’s one of those rare times where Sesto sounds the more forceful in this recit. E pur non hai cor d’aquistar me! doesn’t have the disdainful edge it should.
Come ti piace imponi: perhaps Mentzer is a bit past it (matronly) though there are occasional beautiful moments. Harris gets closer to the Vitellia we expect for her intrance. Her voice sounds better than in the recit. They mix rather well in the mille affetti bit.
Annio drops by: he darkens too; Miller’s diction is a bit iffy (potato).
Deh, se piacer mi vuoi: the orchestra is very competent, the tempo not bad. Harris has the right idea about this and does a lot of things with it (her chief means of characterisation are aptly placed trills, generally accurately executed) but the taste/style is sometimes questionable. This aria shows off her voice up and down, and though agile, I don’t find it a beautiful instrument. In conclusion, it’s not without merit, more interesting than I expected it. She gets deserved applause.
Deh, prendi un dolce amplesso: soulful, energetic, believeable friends.
March/Serbate: good pace, orchestra continues to sound good. The choir seems tiny but is well drilled though more legato would’ve been nice.
Loot talk: proper bass voice for Walker. Both he and Miller declame. Bruce sounds a bit tired here but noble and gentle as usual in this scene. The entire description of the act of god is allowed. As the two sycophants marvel he whooshes everyone out sounding like he abhores the idea of too much emphasis placed on his goodness.
March reprise: imperial
Annio : Sesto : Tito: Annio sounds more alarmed than usual, Sesto more ready to bite the bullet, though he seems to have a lump in his throat. Dry hall? Tito is ready to share his deep heartbreak over Berenice but catches himself and returns to his noble Emperor stance. Nice continuo accent on just after he lets on that he’s decided to marry Servilia. Miller runs breahtlessly through the part of the recit where Annio says me and Sesto go way back, he’s too overcome with gratitude at your generosity and in fact I myself can’t think of a better Empress than Servilia. Tito’s heart swells to hear his friend is so noble and Bruce continues with his noble self about how only the best is good enough for his BFF.
It’s hard for Tito to reconcile duty with his personal life, where he wants to be generous but there’s only so much he can do (Berenice had to go due to unpopular sentiment (xenophobia) and he can’t very well marry Sesto or make him co-Emperor if he doesn’t want to apear corrupt). But we all know he’s a lover at heart and do-gooders have a hard time in positions of power. This moment is closely linked to the Act II finale, where Tito finally understands that the private and public life can’t be balanced.
Del piu sublime soglio: tutto e tormento il resto = foreshadowing. Maestro supports Ford and he goes for wistfulness and gentle sentiment.
Annio : Servilia: Annio is a bit whingy on his own but holds his own when his girlfriend shows up. She sounds more regal-ish than girly but then they both end up alarmed which is all right.
Deh perdona il primo affetto: Miller and Rodriguez matched well but I thought Annio and Servilia were still alarmed rather than lost in their giddy love for each other.
Tito : Publio : Servilia: Tito is disgusted by the idea of punishment. Publio sounds reasonable. Tito is distracted by cute Servilia. She seems to just stroll in and Tito waves Publio off. The two talk like normal people would – sort of like if I walked into my boss’s office and said “hey, boss, can you tack on an extra week to my holiday because I’m having too much fun with mum’s food?” And he’s like “why, yes! Thank you, dehggi, for showing me the importance of family!”
Ah se fosse intorno al trono: very quick on its feet, the bassoon champ. The tone is a bit stuffed but as soon as Ford starts my ears latch on to his tone. As we know, his Tito is so genuinely good-natured, he sounds touched rather than happy. His rapport with Bicket/the orchestra is very good. They manage to add a bit of rubato, just enough. Bicket’s take (in this performance in general) is very efficient; things are kept moving and there’s only enough detail emphasised to make things pop up.
Servilia : Vitellia: no sooner does Bicket drop the baton that Servilia announces how lucky she is. Vitellia pops from around her column, throws herself at her sovereign‘s feet and does impressive(ly) fake grovelling. Hey, it should be done more often this way. It’s on the brink of humourous. Coupled with better phrasing it’d be ace. Rodriguez hasn’t made up her mind how Servilia should respond so she continues down the regal-ish road. The pianoforte finishes she scene with a flourish.
pre-Parto recit: Vitellia is annoyed but not hell hath no fury-style. She’s more foot-stomping mad. I’m still iffy about some of it, as at one point the pianoforte stops and Harris lingers a moment longer as if she’s forgot the next line, but the way she says Bbberenice!!! is hilariously irked. That Berenice, the bane of my existence!!!! And then we get to trema, ingrato! where the fake grovelling, foot-stompiness and the thought of the annoying Berenice come together. Classy it ain’t but it’s definitely a valid way to treat this moment and it comes off better than the similar take from Fiesole.
That’s when reserved Sesto shows up. Vitellia switches over seamlessly, cornering him with her questions. Sesto’s like …???? Harris does well here, her words are dripping with irony. Even so, this Sesto isn’t as horny as others. He sounds very reasonable still so she has to calm down considerably and offer him a lot of reasons to do what she’s asking.
Eventually Sesto gives in, but, judging on the vocal interaction alone, it’s not entirely clear why. It’s almost like he remembers something and decides that’s it! I’m going to do it independent of what Vitellia is saying. There are stage sounds that suggest he’s gathering his things in a hurry. Vitellia takes the opportunity and marches a deadly weapon – tears. You don’t usually hear tears in Vitellia’s voice when she says I know you’ll forget all about my revenge if Tito talks nicely to you so if you can’t do it just leave me alone once and for all!!! (sob, sob), but it works (for this Vitellia, in any case). This awakens Sesto’s chivalry (which we all love, because though he’s not a warrior he’s certainly too chivalrous for his own good).
So either he’s saying No, really, this time I am going to do it! because the first time he was gathering his things to go to his place because Vitellia was being annoying (there are several versions of this recit and I’m working with this cleaned up one) or he’s made his mind up a second time – which is entirely within character for him – or these two initially fubbed their lines and just went in circles for a short while 😉 they’re pros so let’s discard this possibility for now. Thing is, Vitellia once again whinges that she can’t trust him until he starts singing. If we’re being honest, neither can we. Recits can be fun but Parto is Parto.
Parto: as I said elsewhere, I liked Parto as soon as I first heard it. As a world class procrastinator I should know the feeling when you realise you can’t reschedule some irksome/boring/unpleasant/you-just-can’t-be-arsed-to-do-it task anymore. You have to do it or else, just like the orchestral intro here suggests. So you take a deep breath, gather all your thus far elsewhere focused energy and make a half arsed start. Along the way you’re still tempted to cheat but sooner or later you summon all your strength and the ball starts rolling. Before you know it you’re working fast and efficiently and might even get lots of ovations when you’re done!
Mentzer’s Sesto sounds like an overworked civil servant who has finally made time for that folder at the bottom of the rusty cabinet and is ready to tackle whatever no one else wanted to do for the past 30 years. If you think about it, figuring out who was right during the Year of the 4 Emperors is a lot like that. Mentzer has a good deal of no-nonsense energy throughout and hits that chesty note in belta though nowhere near as sexy as VK did in 2003. Still! Not many mezzos go for the muscular take on Parto. Anyone who does is automatically in my good book. The public seemed to think along the same lines and broke into applause way before the last note rang out. It’s not the most exciting take on Sesto but it’s got its clear integrity.
Vedrai, Tito, vedrai!: Vitellia is rubbing her hands and licking her chops at the thought of sweet revenge. Harris is spot on in this recit, perplexed/stricken …Cesare!?! included. Annio and Publio rush to deliver the royal news. Annio is enthusiastic, Publio a bit hush-hush.
Vengo!…Aspettate!… Sesto!!!!: Bicket whips his crop and the orchestra starts at breakneck speed. This is without a doubt – and from the getgo – Harris’ biggest moment in the whole performance. She has the kind of voice that fits this highly contrasting trio. Her easy agility coupled with super punchy top and even a certain acidity in tone suit this to a t. For once she doesn’t have to cover to convey volume and the result is one of the best Vengos I’ve heard. Some sopranos make it work for them, others barely make it through but Harris sounds made for the high Ds and the mad leaps. The public liked it too, because they made a point of clapping even though Bicket et Co. immediately launched into the finale. Miller and Walker gave solid support.
Act I finale
Sesto’s back for his big moment. It’s not easy to imagine a civil servant assassinate an Emperor but let me assure you a paper weight can do a lot of damage in a frenzied hand. Sesto’s plea that the gods watch over Tito is, this time, the key moment, which is enough the convince us he’s a good man. So now I think this Sesto never meant to kill Tito because he was never ensnared by Vitellia. He did it because he felt sorry for her and was too chivalrous to leave her stew in her own vengeance. Even by the way he says to Annio lo sapprai… per mio rossor you can tell he’s thinking about Vitellia angry and crying because she can’t get what she wants rather than about her wiles.
Annio and Servilia once more sound alarmed, then the choir comes in, all omg! and then it’s Publio’s cue. His entrance is a bit underpowered. Harris was by now properly warmed up, so her lines were swimming with agility once more and she met her cues very well. Sesto and Vitellia’s connection came off stronger than before. As the Noir Tito from Paris (2014) showed us, this moment has a good deal of exploitable eroticism to it. There’s a lot of the running around that comes through the broadcast.
During the intermission there is character commentary from Ford and Harris, much more insightful than you would get from something like a Met intermission chat.
Annio : Sesto: it’s what you’d expect from a smaller house, with Miller sounding wooden and Mentzer pretty decent.
Torna di Tito a lato: I don’t like Miller’s tone for Annio but she does the job.
Partir deggio…?: Mentzer continues in her competent manner. Harris starts very well, with a lot of uncertainty and even fear in the way she phrases Sesto…! but then things lose clarity, especially in the part where she complains that Sesto would be won over if Tito showed him clemency. She sounds too regal where she should keep at least some of that fear. I think it’s a matter of both talent and experience. Walker’s Publio is of the polite kind.
Se al volto mai ti senti: Mentzer wasn’t at her most agile at this point, but she doesn’t force it. Sesto needs to sound wistful and that does come through without ersatz whinginess. Harris’ start is a bit unsure and for most of time I’m not sure she’s singing on the breath. I might be wrong but there’s something there going on either with her emission or breath production that is obvious in a duet or trio when everybody else sounds different. As usual in this performance, she relies on trills and the one she does on Vitellia’s first che cru-del-ta! fits the mood – the effect is of losing guts in the middle of the word. It’s a clean rendition of the trio.
Ah grazie se rendano: the feel is of community theatre until the moment Ford shows up when it’s like the sun coming from behing a cloud and and infusing everything with shape and colour. There is no characterisation from the choir, however the microphones might have been closer to the men, as a few of the voices spring out throughout. Or maybe they had bigger voices. It’s really rather unusual for a broadcast; otherwise I’d have thought the bootlegger was sat right next to certain male singers.
Whenever I get to this point in the opera I have a feeling I have heard this first in Tchaikovsky (namely in The Nutcracker) and I always vow to myself to re-listen to that for calrification.
There’s a curious stage sound in the middle of Tito’s lines, which sounds like firecrackers being lit.
Tito : Publio: Ford is a pro, he sounds like he’s on a big stage. Tito is confused, which is very valid yet not always done as clearly. Walker does his best.
Tardi s’avvede: the curious stage sound effects return. Either Publio is lying down on a tarpaulin or he’s pushing something wooshy across the floor. Or maybe Tito’s sweeping? Hard to tell but stage directors should keep in mind that this poor chap has only one aria. Walker sounds like he’s got a blocked nose but otherwise I have no complaints (well, aside from a lack of distinction). Good diction.
Tito : Annio : Publio: Tito is surprised and alarmed but still incredulous in that regular but noble chap way specific to Ford’s Tito. Ford pulls his colleagues along and both do well. Annio… please leave me alone! – which many Titi do in a forceful manner, is done in a small, vulnerable tone. To me that is even more effective considering Annio’s fearful request. Then he shouts partite!!!!! at them and there’s some scraping on stage. It feels like Annio’s climbed up a column and is making his second request in one scared-shitless breath from up there.
Tu fosti tradito: Bicket conducts this very heroically. Miller is surprinsingly good at this heroic take and her attack on the screechy highs isn’t bad at all. I’d wager this was one of her main audition pieces when she started. I liked it and it’s not esay to pull off.
Tito’s anguished monologue: it sounds like something from the 18th century, like Mozart. I was saying ealier that talent and experience are very obvious sometimes. I think Harris understands her role very well but perhaps can’t express everything she knows. Not so with Ford. This is a very difficult recit, where one can easily lose their way or lose energy. He doesn’t and he keeps me focused with his excellent command of phrasing. Now angry, now confused – lost to his inner conflicts – Tito’s anguish is touching. Not many singers can express idealism as well as Ford does in his musing about the peasant. He “gets” Englightenment. I know he’s said elsewhere that he had a hard time finding Tito so soon after 9/11 but that intensity of searching works in his favour.
Tito : Publio : (Sesto): Tito tells Publio he wants to see Sesto and Walker does a very good job sounding a bit embarrassed about the situation. Tito doesn’t cover his hurt at seeing Sesto.
Quello di Tito e il volto: I’ve always liked how differenciated the three parts are in this trio – Sesto’s tremolos, Tito’s staccati and Publio’s arpeggios. Mentzer’s Sesto is not one of the most detailed but the basis is solidly sobre. Her trill on non può di più penar tells all that one needs to know about Sesto at this point in the plot: he’s very close to opening up to Tito but ultimately can’t. So good job to Bicket or whoever came up with this consistent use of trills to pinpoint psychological moments. Also good job Mentzer crafting the extra layer. Ford’s tone was lovely.
Tito : Sesto: continuing this sobre and traditionally manly Sesto (the kind who doesn’t talk too much), the relationship between Tito and Sesto is crystalised here as of two friends of different social standings. I get the feeling Tito can afford to be more effusive in general, not just at this point. Sesto, of course, has extra reasons to be reserved. It’s working. Sesto is very polite and not overly vulnerable; when asked, he can face the truth. The combination makes him more noble than usual, especially when juxtaposed with this very friendly Tito (the kind of friend who says he would do anything for you and actually means it).
More stage sounds, so I imagine that, without further ado, Tito signs the death warrant (and perhaps shows it to him as well, when he says sconoscente! e l’avrai).
Deh, per questo instante solo: there is a bit of an pianforte variation before the actual intro, then the intro starts quite a bit chipper than usual. Mentzer’s rondo is built on the implied self criticism of the line il tuo sdegno e il tuo rigor, to emphasise Sesto’s upright nature in spite of his momentary weakness. It’s clean and reserved, in keeping with her characterisation up to this point. The instrumental transition from minor to major between né si more di dolor! and de pietade indegno, e vero is evocative of Sesto’s being in two minds, of his chosing Tito over Vitellia.
Tito decides: Ford goes softly on this
Se all’impero: time to put the pedal to the medal but for all the pizazz that bookmarks it, it’s still the softness that sticks with you. This Tito believes in peace. Ford also makes it belong with the rest of the opera, instead of giving extra emphasis at the expense of what comes before.
Vitellia : Annio : Servilia: Vitellia is frantic. She’s running around like a headless chicken, worried her involvement was discovered. The lovebirds corner her and she tries to wiggle out of it. She’s really not sure and sounds rather whingy, even as Annio tells her she’s Tito’s latest choice. Servilia doesn’t take no for an answer.
S’altro che lagrime: all the ladies here (perhaps aside from Miller) tend to darken their tone and strangely so does Rodriguez. If there ever was one role where brightness was always a requirment this is it. Rodriguez seems cautious about her top (there’s quite a bit of wobble) and so the non gioveras come off lacking in power, volume and zing. On the bright side, the way she goes about it all works out for her and nothing drastic happens.
Ecco il punto…/Non piu di fiori: Harris didn’t gauge her energy well and placed more emphasis on che per tua colpa than on devine reo. Otherwise the monologue wasn’t badly driven. Perhaps she could’ve got more mileage out of Vitellia’s realisation that helping Sesto could also help her.
For the rondo, Harris once again relies on her ease with trills. One of them (on discenda Imene) is very expressive and hits the mark, the other one (on ah, di me che si dirà) seems spontaneously spurred by the earlier one’s success and feels tacked on at the last minute. It’s clunky but Harris rides it for better or worse. She goes to town once more later on qual ororre!!! but only by revving on the top notes, which works out to the desired effect. We know by now that Harris is by a wide margin more comfortable with the the acuti than the lows and the low G (or something along those lines) is place on pieta. She made it through but I think at the expense of clarity of characterisation. The basset horn is very fine throughout and even has a (playful, detached but not necessary unsympathetic) personality.
Act II finale
The otchestra segues into a bouncy, regal renditon of Che del ciel, with the choir perhaps starting off stage, as it’s hard to hear them, unlike before. Tito is dignified and chides Sesto in front of everybody, but Ford phrases it so that Sesto gets the reason for his deepest sadness. Vitellia shows up in her whingy voice, Tito is surprised in a tired way. Harris borrows some of his dignity as Vitellia’s confession rolls. Ford continues in his deadpan way and once again he’s one of the few and the best at making serious Tito sound believable.
The way Mentzer delivers Sesto’s apology and Ford responds for Tito gives unusual hope for a reconciliation. There’s more vibrato that I’d have liked from our sopranos in Eterni dei that kinda covers Tito but remember those loud voiced men in the choir? They offer some balanace and Bicket drives it home solidly enough.
It’s better than I hoped, with some fine moments that I wouldn’t have expected. Bicket kept a tight leash. Ford confirms himself as one of my favourite Mozart tenors (which also translates as favourite Titos). Mentzer gave us a very together Sesto, dramatically and vocally, and Harris surprised me with her top drawer performance in Vengo! …Aspetatte… Sesto!!! Miller also did a very good job with the tricky Tu fosti tradito.
Let us also not forget that September is Tito Month! So whip out your favourite Titi and get celebrating 😀