La clemenza di Tito or the return of evil Sesto (Glyndebourne, 31 July 2017)

(1) Guth managed not to fuck up this Mozart! (praise the gods)

(2) Mezzo Vitellia = YES! ROH take note. It’s time to bring Tito back to London.

(3) DVD! Not only a livestream, a Proms stint but also a proper DVD is in the works. 4 Cameras were in the house yesterday. Glyndebourne does things in style (also it was high time they put the old production behind).

Tito: Richard Croft
Vitellia: Alice Coote
Sesto: Anna Stéphany
Annio: Michèle Losier
Publio: Clive Bayley
Servilia: Joélle Harvey
Conductor: Robin Ticciati
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and The Glyndebourne Chorus
Clarinet obligato: Katherine Spencer
Director: Claus Guth

When the last echoes of the Act I finale faded I thought to myself I don’t want to wait for 1 1/2hours! At the end of Act II I said I was ready to come back and see it for the rest of the week. Guth and team have put together a highly cinematic Tito.

I kept my mind clear of any reviews before this report so you shall see for yourselves on Thursday and make your own judgments. So far, though – and you know how it is when you have to focus on everything at once and can’t stop the show and “rewind”, or go to the kitchen for a moment and ponder, and especially when it’s your first time seeing your favourite opera staged – I am very pleased with Guth’s take on it. It’s dark but it’s not quite as angsty as I feared (certainly not as angsty as his TADW Poppea). Ticci himself opted for a super clean libretto to go with brisk – rambunctious, even – tempi. The house was packed and the applause generous throughout plus lots of stomping (especially for Stéphany) at curtain call. I am of course very happy to see such a hearty reception for my favourite opera 🙂

We did not luck out with our seating. It seems there’s an unwritten law that says lots of the action in a staged production shall happen on the right side of the stage (from the audience’s perspective) – unless it’s Wagner, says Leander (read her take on this performance of Tito here), who actually sat through 5 hours of Tristan for Connolly’s sake. We, of course, had seats on that side of the horseshoe). So we did miss a fair bit of the action (such as the shooting of fake Tito). I’d moan more if there were no livestream and DVD or me going again next week.

Evil Sesto. Sometimes Guth’s interest in deeper psychological investigation pans out. Here we have the return of the lesser spotted evil Sesto. Normally we know who our baddy is. In this case Vitellia is ambitious and dangerously driven by scorn but it feels like high drama would’ve been averted had Tito simply made the nature of his generosity clearer. Moral: if you pride yourself on working for the higher good, take time to speak to all your subjects, lest someone feels shafted due to miscommunication. People aren’t used to such levels of goodness and they might take your kindness for love.

But what of Sesto, eh? During the overture we had video projections. Praise the lord, they do serve a clear purpose here, as they give us a snippet of Tito and Sesto’s friendship. It’s a neat little black and white short that focuses on a key moment of their childhood. I won’t spoil it for you if you don’t know yet what happens. Watch it on Thursday 😉 Let’s just say that it tells us there is something inherently wrong with Sesto. I’m game with that! Guth gives us a possible answer as to why Sesto keeps getting into these ambiguous relationships. It makes that line ch’io son l’oggetto dell’ira degli Dei work for us 21st century audiences.

It’s kind of interesting that Stéphany ended up playing this new incarnation of evil Sesto not that long after her stint in the Zurich production of the original evil Sesto. Whereas that one was very self aware rotten, I feel this one is bad in spite of himself. He doesn’t want to do harm but he keeps succumbing to those atavistic impulses. I like it. The black and white short’s atmosphere reminded me a bit of Haneke’s White Ribbon. (Speaking of films, a favourite of mine – and if you know it you won’t be at all surprised I like it -, the Japanese classic Onibaba, also has sex, betrayal and revenge happen within a world of tall grass).

As you (may) know, my previous experience of Stéphany live left me very unimpressed with her acting abilities, to the point where I purposely missed that particular revival of the Zurich Tito, even though it’s one of my very favourite takes on the story and I would like to see it one day in the house, if they still hold on to it.

Before the show started I said to Leander that I’m open to possibilities, as long as the whole works out. And I have to say that within this whole Stéphany did work out. Leander herself, who bitterly lamented the cast change, ended up saying she did not miss Lindsey in the end. The public gave her stomps. So you know she must’ve done something right.

She did. Her singing was technically flawless. The coloratura was as flexible as anything (what is it with French singers and top coloratura chops?), she divested herself of a couple of well placed and new to me flourishes on each of Sesto’s big arias and the initial partos had individuality enough to inform us of his bravado/indecision. She made a surprisingly convincing troubled young man (early to mid 20s?) and would’ve done so even absent the (well done) facial hair.

For me she was just short of spectacular because I still want more (or warmer?) charisma in Sesto, more can be done with Deh, per questo aside from beautiful/energetic singing and I also want a ringing chest touchdown in Parto, and, of course, a truly memorable voice. But that’s me with my standards for this character, which have prevented me from settling on a number of staged productions until now. You can argue this quasi-psychopathic Sesto does not need the warmer charisma, Leander will say her voice is finer than Garanca’s. I may yet grow to like the performance more upon further investigation, because I am already a big fan of the Tito/Sesto background story.

the image belongs to Glyndebourne

900 words before we get to Vitellia. Let it be put in print that Vitellia is hands down my favourite role for Coote. I like her even better here than as Ruggiero. What I was saying about her voice’s texture proved true. YES! We need a mezzo Vitellia more often (3 mezzo Tito = for me! 😀 ) and those who are willing, let them sing the hell of her.

I don’t know about the neck brace, but I had no problem whatsoever with her singing last night. It got to the point where I was thinking: why do sopranos sing this role, again? And you know how I love my Roschmann1 Vitellia, which I should re-listen to see why indeed. (With a mezzo you don’t get the intended screechiness but you get more unshakable power instead). Coote’s voice has got the right warmth and weight and she managed the high notes like the pro she is. I’ve seen her quite a bit this year (1 x Octavian, 2 x Ariodante) and I have to say, the woman knows how to sing.

Baroque Bird was asking what is she known for? (as in what genre). And I said, everything! She is at a point in her career where she can navigate everything, reason for which I vote she sings more of this stuff – earth to ROH again. I guess you could – and after the livestream I probably will – make a deeper analysis of her performance but for now I will just say I simply loved it, the rather benign crankiness and the coogarness of it. She’s a determined woman and she found a way to get what she wanted – but didn’t realise she unleashed something she couldn’t quite control in the end.

Guth isn’t very focused on Vitellia, having established she’s rather succumbed to wishful thinking and misunderstanding than pure evil. She’s ambitious enough to manipulate Sesto but her contrition at the end of act II is unusually credible. Her and Tito’s interaction is likewise warmer and more mature than usual; they are more together as people than in most productions. She’s getting more and more annoyed with the turn events take and is chain smoking in very tall grass, which caused Baroque Bird to suggest she could’ve set the Capitol on fire all on her own 😉

Vitellia (act 2 finale): Tito, I have to tell you something.
Tito: what is it now?
Vitellia: I started the fire. My chain smoking got the better of me.
Tito: Romans, keep Rome safe! Quit smoking!

Tito. We had a bit of a laugh at the intermission, what with the childhood short where Tito seems older than Sesto but not quite as much as the obvious age difference between stage Tito and Sesto. I joked that perhaps suave Sesto (is there any other kind?) has his Dorian Gray portrait in the attic. I wouldn’t put it past this child of the corn.

Age difference out of the way, Sesto and Tito share an interesting natural feel that I don’t know that I got in other productions. Usually much is made of the stunted relationships among the characters, which is reflected by a stiffness in their interactions. Here we have a moment where, in a rambunctious effort to get through to his best friend, Tito lifts Sesto off the ground, in a gesture that is both chummy and manages to draw further attention to Sesto’s apparent youth – which he (Sesto) does not seem to like.

Their age difference can point out their different levels of responsibility/maturity. This Tito is very sane (though his limits are pushed) and a down to earth man, with a higher than usual (even among Titi) common touch. Yet he is forced in a position of power which finds him removed from the very people he wants to be close to. That’s true to life. Once you get in a position of some sort of power, everyone, even those closest to you starts to treat you differently.

There is that moment when a frustrated Tito asks Sesto if he hoped to gain happiness by attaining power and Sesto says no. Well, perhaps Sesto would benefit from becoming more responsible. But this one can’t.

Croft is here perhaps the most self effacing Tito I have seen. He too is a cog in the system. His subjects (the highly stylised-moving chorus) seem to act of their own accord, their adulation towards their leader a given but also a powerful force. Guth elects to use Serbate, dei custodi as the mob casting out Berenice2 rather than as an ode to Cesar. Another touch I really enjoyed.

So in the end, when Tito decides to defy the gods (mob?), it feels like this is his own breakthrough, with Croft conveying that with much clarity mixed with that specific brand of vulnerability that makes his characters so human with so little apparent effort. His Tito knows it’s dangerous to meet badness with understanding and kindness but (in the long run) it’s worse to perpetuate the cycle of violence and if there is one thing he can do from his position is attempt to break this cycle.

Croft’s singing is also off the cuff, so when he gets to toss the endless coloratura in Se all’impero you may be fooled it’s no biggie. He puts the benevolent in benevolent ruler by voice alone and Tito’s mission statement comes off a less like a here’s my big aria! moment and much more integrated into the whole. It’s a rare achievement.

Tito’s 1:1 with Sesto also benefitted from Croft’s unfussy Tito. It was easy to believe him when he told Sesto I’ve never hidden anything from you. Their interaction here was, as it should be, driven by a genuinely friendly Tito. I think this particular Tito’s drama is that he isn’t unapproachable like others tend to be. He lost his approachability due to his position instead of something he has or hasn’t done.

… there is more I want to say and surely it needs further pondering but right now I have to stop short to post this even if it’s not completely done. Rest assured I’ll have more to say in the next few weeks and again when the DVD comes out.

Two more things before a more step by step rundown after Thursday: the clarinet/basset horn was fab and the chorus, drafted at the back of the stalls/under the boxes during the Act I finale was in very good form – and very effective due to the positioning (shouts of tradimento! coming from underneath), sending shivers up my spine.

As I was saying, there were some harkbacks to the classic Salzburg Tito, among them the tiered structure, about which Ticciati gives a neat little explanation below:

  1. And Naglestad and Varady and Gauvin. And Antonacci (but that’s cheating, she’s the quintessential mezzo/soprano). Saying that, come on, why is she not singing Vitellia again? 
  2. This is the kind of production where Berenice makes appearances. 

About dehggial

Mozart/Baroque loving red dragon

Posted on August 1, 2017, in 1001 musings on la clemenza di tito, glyndebourne, live performances, mezzos & contraltos, mozart, tenors and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 52 Comments.

  1. Evil Sesto sounds good and really interesting! I used to think (when I was younger and stupider and took everything at face value) he is just a wimpy doormat, someone who would be insignificant or even disgusting to Vitellia.

    I’m glad you said Guth didn’t fuck this up. His very name makes me think of giant puppet heads.:D

    This sounds so promising and I’m so excited!!! 🙂

    • I think you’ll like it. The troubled childhood theme continues for Guth.

      To be fair, the doormat Sesto was very common back in the day. The Ponnelle film sure didn’t help, even though he was working with such a wonderful singer who genuinely loved Sesto when it wasn’t cool to do so.

      Now we’ve gone through doormat Sesto, Sesto the only sane one in the opera to Sesto as the unhinged one 😉

  2. talk to me more about Alice Coote, and mezzo Vitellias
    gets out package of smokes after reading this

    • I do wonder how come it took her so long to sing Vitellia, that’s how well I thought her voice fit. Maybe it’s just a matter of timing (and ciggies). Also what with all the Mahler and all, her voice is quite bigger than the others’ so she totally dominated Vengo! Aspetatte! at least from where we were. But the balance between her and Stephany in Se al volto (the che crudelta bits) was interesting in the good way. Their interaction was of the more muscular type in general, they fought a lot 😉

  3. i don’t know which of the multitude of posts is most appropriate to comment on with my thoughts after watching the stream, so here it will go: i thought the production was great! probably the most comprehensive in terms of making all the characters make sense, all the way through, and maintaining my attention during the recits, that i’ve seen. like the potential of Tito as an opera is demonstrated at last!
    – overall, great singing/acting from everybody, completely agree with you on Vitellia being one of the best roles for Coote, esp as i’m not really a fan of her pants roles. very enjoyable, i liked it more than Gauvin’s in Paris. plus, 3 mezzos, win win win! ever since hearing ASvO’s Ecco il punto…Non piu di fiori recording, like, actually being able to hear those notes below middle C makes such a difference.
    – Richard Croft hearteyes smooth like whipped buttah. i would’ve liked to have seen a Croft/Lindsey reunion (and wonder how she would’ve played this characterisation) but oh well. Stéphany I was pleasantly surprised by, and quite satisfied with her performance.
    – Publio’s thing with the jackets merits further pondering.. or maybe it’s not that complicated.

    • 🙂 I am very glad to hear you enjoyed it. I also think it’s very well thought out and, like I keep saying, that world of reeds just works. I think Gauvin’s (and many sopranos’) problem is that she/they bottom out quite audibly, although when the mezzos have to strain a bit at the top it’s not so much of an issue – at least for me. The plumminess of the voice, though, really gives it an earthy dimension. I was thinking comparing it with Schultz over in the new Salzburg one – I liked Schultz a lot, too, with all the elaborate trills and whatnot but this is just so smooth.

      There might be a reunion yet of they reprise the opera in a couple of years as they tend to.

      I thought Publio just looked odd and rather slimey.

      • yes, the mezzo strain at the top is very mild, the range is extremely suitable I think except that top D that they rarely hit. not that sopranos hit it much either.

        speaking of earthiness, Tito always coming back to the ground and his roots 😉 could totally have been overdone and too literal but somehow it didn’t feel like that.

        perhaps Publio provides the bureaucratic spine in this cog-system, and might as well wear the jacket. like who else is going to do the admin while Tito hand-scythes his straw pillow?

        • hehe, poor Tito. The way you put it I feel like he hid the scythe there on purpose and has been down there secretly many times playing the peasant, whilst Publio was busy compiling the Traitors spreadsheet.

          it’s always tricky to have a credible Tito but I think Guth and all (us) lucked out with such a natural actor like Croft. Also I think that bottom layer is such a mysterious world, it’s little wonder people want to come down and explore it.

          yes, I think Roschmann herself didn’t have an easy time with the top D so to expect that kind of thing from a mezzo is unnecessary. But there are note nitpickers out there. Like you said, the smoothness for the bulk of the role is what counts in the end.

  4. not sure if WordPress loses my comments when I post them or if they’re waiting in an approval queue..

    • you’re right! It’s in Spam for some reason. Let me unearth it. In fact I noticed there are a few more in there. WP has been unrealiable of late, often I don’t get the orange dot to alert me I have comments so I have to do it manually but it seems now it sends perfectly legit posts to spam, posts that don’t even have links. Very strange.

    • oh, well that worked so I’ll paraphrase what I thought I posted before:
      I watched the stream last night and thought the production was fantastic! for the first time all the characters made sense to me throughout, my attention didn’t wander during any of the recits, it’s like the fulfillment of the potential I felt Tito always had but never reaches all at once.

      overall, great singing and acting from everyone. I completely agree about Vitellia being a most suitable role for Coote, esp as I’m not really a fan of her pants roles. very enjoyable, perhaps the only time I’ve not been put off by the character being over-dramatic. plus, 3 mezzos, win win win! ever since hearing ASvO’s Ecco Il punto…Non piu di fiori, it’s like, being able to hear the notes below middle C makes such a difference. definitely prefer the power throughout to the intended screeching as you say; Mozart makes fun of someone and we’ve been following this as tradition since with less than optimal performance outcomes, at least in my opinion
      Richard Croft, smooth like whipped buttah 😍 maybe a touch too light until the end but I’ll take it. I would’ve liked a Croft/Lindsey reunion (and wonder about how she would have done in this characterisation) but oh well. Stéphany was a pleasant surprise for me, there’s a vibrato/pitch thing that I don’t love on the last notes of some phrases but it’s a very minor quibble.
      Publio with the jackets merits some pondering.. or maybe it’s not that complicated.

      I’ll definitely pick this one up on DVD when it happens.

      • oh well now I’ve messed it up, haven’t I? a few additional thoughts, if you can parse them

      • They say the DVD will be out next year 🙂

        Croft is indeed rather light but it fits the very gentle character, I thought. Then we have the booming Thomas over in Salzburg and you end up missing all the subtlety Croft brings. It really is more of a chamber opera, stately or not (not, IMO).

        I actually have to make up my mind further on Stephany. I think I have similar (?) issues with her voice to what you mentioned. I kept trying to figure out what exactly is my problem. I feel like sometimes the colour just vanishes from her voice, then it returns, vanishes again. It’s quite difficult to put into words. Sometimes I just can’t hear her, though not in the simple sense. To be fair I did admire her coloratura.

        I’m trying now to compare (not in a competition manner) her to Crebassa and see who works better for me. I think Crebassa has the better range but… anyway, I will be in Tito land for the forseeable future 😉

        • not stately, I agree. I much prefer Croft’s conversational style rather than rigid declamation. but will check out the Salzburg to compare.

          I haven’t heard Stéphany in anything else of note so can’t really compare, but yes, props on the coloratura. to be more technical about it, and see if this lines up with your feelings, for me on the final note of phrases, the vibrato was not starting from the pitch of the note itself. as a very rough approximation, e.g. if the note is C and the vibrato goes from C to C#, I couldn’t actually hear any point where her sound touched the C anymore. like it was all of the note’s vibrato and no actual pitched note.
          this is such a big issue for me that a lot of it or overly wide vibrato with a similar effect will just put me off singers entirely, perhaps unfairly 🙊

          • Sounds like that could be it! In fact, Baroque Bird said the same thing and she understands music better than I do. Thanks for the clarification 🙂

          • btw, what’s the cute monkey thing you have at the end there? whatever it is = ❤

            • haha it’s one of the three monkeys that doesn’t see, hear or speak. in my case it’s saying something slightly controversial and maybe stuffing the words back in

              • hey, I have an issue with large vibrato myself (Eric Halvarson’s makes my head spin), which I always thought was because I don’t listen to a lot of music that requires that.

                • nah for me I consider it a measure of accuracy. I am particularly picky on intonation, having grown up playing the violin, and hence not many singers at all tick most of my boxes

                  • Is this something that one can get better at or they (the singers) are stuck with it?

                    • massive disclaimer that I’ve never had vocal training, but I would think it could be improved, as a pitching technique or focus.

                    • otherwise how would Croft or ASvO have such even pitching from the very first millisecond to the last? imo precision comes more naturally to some than others, then can be honed, as in everything

                    • Makes sense. As someone who has not studied music and have a background where people just sort of laugh at you if you can’t simply open your mouth and sing in tune and tell you you’re hopeless, I don’t have a very clear idea how it works.

                      On the other hand I taught myself how to draw and I have always had a hard time understanding how some people can’t just pick up a pen and draw a house of a tree 😉 but for sure things like gauging sizes of objects in relation to each other and distances is something that you learn in time.

                    • yes I think that’s a very apt analogy! some baseline talent or interest, and the rest is hard work 😊

                    • 🙂 btw, now watching the ending again I can see what you meant about the jackets. I obviously missed that from my limited veiw seat! Looks like Tito resigned and has gone back to cutting his own grass 😉 I was very touched by this surprisingly unpatronising happy ending.

          • ps: watch out with the Salzburg production – put aside plenty of time and even a stiff drink. It really blew my toupee! It’s just so OTT! I think I will need to watch it another couple of times to unpick the whole thing (and will duly skip the extraneous music) – I’m easily distracted by shiny things as it is.

  5. Yep, I’m definitely not falling for the ‘Hey, Sarah Connolly’s in this Wagner opera!’ again. Also, I noticed the Publio jacket thing on the rewatch. I was rather worried until I saw him put his fist to his heart while looking down at Tito. I read that as promotion, perhaps, but still loyalty. Maybe the salute wasn’t directed to Tito though? Ooh… troubled

    Just to reiterate, I loved Anna Stephany more than anyone else in the comments seems to (laughs), but I suspect that may be because I’m not musically trained and can’t detect the finer points of tuning that you’re discussing. But yes, given how wedded I was to the idea of seeing Kate Lindsey, it’s a big deal that I was so impressed by Stephany.

    Oh, and Dehgg, she’s actually not French. She’s Anglo-French and was born up north in England. So that means I get to add her to my list of really good homegrown singers happy face

    • AS is from oop norf?! The French side is so obvious, though. Good thing I never heard her speak yet, my eyes would’ve popped out! You know the first time I saw her was from up close and what with looking so much (here) as my old classmate (we were classmates for 8 years), plus the thing about her vibrato, I have very complex feelings about her. I thing after I see the second show I will have a more thoughtful commentary on the whole thing, her included.

      I suppose the Publio thing is to throw a bit of confusion to this happy ending. Clearly he has been very focused all opera and seems to be the kind of person that wouldn’t care so much about Sesto or whoever, as long as he gets to replace Tito.

    • oh yes I too was quite crushed from afar when I saw that KL would not be doing another Sesto just yet, I love her Mozart style.
      I’m hoping to come and see her next year as Octavian, if that eventuates.

      • Please come 🙂 I love that production and will most likely go see it again. Let me know if you think you might have any problems getting tickets.

        • oh I am definitely confused about the entire ticket buying process, do you normally get them online when it opens to the public in March?

  6. (Um, I just wrote a comment but it seems to have vanished. I’ll try to post it again but please delete if it comes up twice)

  7. Thank you for your impressions and lucky you to see this live twice! I have just finished act I, and you’re right, the staging manages to transport very interesting and believable characters, makes me wonder what happens next, even if I already know of course….One favourite moment so far was Tito smashing the champagne glasses when Servillia couldn’t see it, while singing to her about his understanding and generousity, a very humane Tito.
    And I just love this take musically, the band is fantastic as always, great flow, and very good singing by everyone, especially Croft and Coote are just amazing! Looking forward to your further posts on this!

    • Thank you 🙂 btw, sorry I didn’t answer yet (email), Tito took over my free time 🙂 I like that moment with the glasses, too, this Tito is very considerate. I just love it when he tries to get Sesto to behave naturally with him – my heart breaks for him.

  8. am listening in to A.Coote now for the first time as Vitellia.
    i’m addicted..
    jaw dropping addicted…

  9. Are there no, or not enough, younger tenors capable of singing Tito in character on stage? When I watched both the Salzburg and Glyndebourne productions last week, the supposed since-boyhood friends of Sesto and Tito looked more like grandfather and grandson. The deep bond from a lifelong friendship is so important in this story, and the apparent age disparity between the characters was quite distracting. I suppose, however, this issue is not uncommon in productions of Tito; but I think it’s more of a problem in this opera than it is in others.

    • I have no clue 😉 aside from acting credibly and putting up with Se all’impero I don’t know that it’s a particularly hard role. Then again, I haven’t sung it myself… the problem is usually resolved (when it is at all) by having an older Sesto 😉

  1. Pingback: La Clemenza di Tito: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1791) – The Idle Woman

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