Album Review: Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito’

September 17, 2018 Updated: September 20, 2018

This album is the fifth in Deutsche Grammophon‘s project to record the major Mozart operas with Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, live in concert at Baden Baden, and all with Rolando Villazón singing the leading tenor role.

A strong cast surrounds Villazón’s distinctive yet problematic account of the title role of Mozart’s “La Clemenza di Tito. The cast includes Marina Rebeka as Vitellia, Joyce DiDonato as Sesto, Tara Erraught as Annio, Regula Mühlemann as Servilia, and Adam Plachetka as Publio.

Mozart’s final serious opera languished rather longer in the archives than his others, but this remarkable reinvention of the “opera seria” form has now developed quite a considerable life, and there are a number of fine recordings out there ranging from period to modern instruments.

On this disc, Nézet-Séguin takes rather a middle way, keeping the music propulsive and lithe with engaging playing from the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, including some fine solo moments, yet willing to pull the music around for expressive purposes.

I am not sure, however, that Nézet-Séguin’s performance really smacks of the theater, and if there is one thing that “La Clemenza di Tito” needs, it is a sure dramatic hand. There is a lot of recitative in the opera (and probably not written by Mozart; commentators suspect Franz Xaver Süssmayr). Even cut (as here), there is plenty of it. Yet the singers on the whole tend to make rather a meal of it.

An example of how to make recitative work dramatically (albeit in Handel) has been given by Laurence Cummings and his Göttingen International Handel Festival forces, where their series of live recordings of Handel’s opera seria has been notable for speed, vividness, and propulsion of the drama in the recitative, really grabbing you and taking you along.

Here, in “La Clemenza,” the characters have a tendency to dwell, shaping individual words and phrases expressively, yet in a way that holds up the drama. If you relish the idea of Joyce DiDonato savoring every word, then this style is for you. But if you long for the drama to move, then you may find it a bit slow.

The great set pieces are well done, and if you consider only “Parto, parto,” “Non più di fiori,” and the Act 1 Trio, then there is much to enjoy on this disc.

Villazón as Tito

Yet, “La Clemenza di Tito” is very much about the title role. Tito has a series of arias that operate on a different dramatic plane than the other characters, and I have heard a number of performances of this opera where Tito comes over as beautifully sung but boring.

Certainly, Rolando Villazón is never boring on this disc. He slides around the notes, bending pitch expressively, and uses a dramatic style that would not be amiss in late 19th- and early 20th-century Italian opera.

Stylistically, he stands out from the rest of the cast, and this can be argued as a good thing dramatically. It is a performance that I could probably live with—once, in a live staging—but not one that I want to return to in a CD recording. The mismatch between Villazón’s verismo style and Mozart’s music is just too great for me.

The Other Characters

The challenge of the role of Vitellia is a different one. The technical demands are huge, as it has a range of over two octaves; most of the role is written for a soprano, yet the final rondo, “Non più di fiori,” seems to fit a mezzo range better, and some commentators suspect Mozart of re-using material.

The result is that Vitellia tends to be sung by a dramatic soprano, with a convincing lower register, or by some brave mezzo-sopranos. (Janet Baker and Della Jones have both recorded it, and Alice Coote sang the role at Glyndebourne in 2017.) Latvian spinto soprano Marina Rebeka brings real drama and power to the role. She attacks it with spinto relish, yet is able to scale back to blend beautifully in the duets, and sing the passage-work cleanly. It is not the most seductive performance, but there is great power and attraction here, and she crowns it with a fine account of “Non più di fiori,” with only the very lowest notes sounding a little forced.

Both Rebeka and DiDonato show themselves willing to push and pull the music about for expressive purposes in a way that can seem a bit anachronistic in a performance that owes something to period style.

In the trouser role, DiDonato makes a powerful and expressive Sesto. How could she not? And her opening aria, “Parto, parto,” with its glorious basset-clarinet solo is a strongly passionate statement, but you have to accept that DiDonato will slow it down to relish individual phrases and make the moment more important than the overall structure.

The secondary couple, Annio and Servilia, are performed by Tara Erraught and Regula Mühlemann in a clean-limbed modern manner for this kind of performance, without the expressive rubatos of Rebeka and DiDonato. Yet both Erraught and Mühlemann capture their characters. Erraught shows that singing with classical style can express character. This is a role that expresses itself very much in dialogue with others, and Erraught makes the character really count. Mühlemann is wonderfully sweet and pitch-perfect as Servilia.

Adam Plachetka is highly characterful as Publio, and yet stylistically he seems to match Villazón so that the opera seems to divide into pairs, each one taking a slightly different journey toward making Mozart’s music expressive.

But it is Villazón who will probably make or break this recording for you. It is certainly not a boring performance, and as Villazón is surrounded by a strong cast who imbue their roles with character, there is much to enjoy on the disc—if his verismo-esque approach to Mozart appeals.

Robert Hugill is a composer, lecturer, journalist, and classical music blogger. He runs the classical music blog Planet Hugill, writes for the Opera Today website, and Opera Today and Opera magazines. He lectures and gives pre-concert talks on opera and classical music in London. As a composer, his disc of songs “Quickening” was issued by Navona Records in 2017. This article, slightly edited, is reprinted with permission from Planet Hugill. 

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