There are many reasons to see the Met's current revival of La clemenza di Tito, but by far the best is Susan Graham's performance as Sesto.
Returning to Mozart after a period dominated by French repertoire, Graham triumphed. Her rendition of 'Parto, parto' in the first act brought an electricity to the night that it had previously lacked, but the two numbers which stood out for me were the fierily-delivered accompagnato 'Oh dei, che smania è questa' and the second-act rondo 'Deh, per questo istante solo'. Graham negotiated the fiendish technical challenges of the latter with breathtaking ease and amazing precision, making it the highlight of the evening.
The performance as a whole took a while to warm up, however. Mozart's penultimate opera has always been something of a problem, both as an event in music history and on the stage. By turning to the antiquated opera seria form at the end of his life, Mozart created something of an inconvenience to writers who like to see his career as a neat progression from the baroque-influenced forms which he inherited from his predecessors to the more modern dramas he wrote in collaboration with Da Ponte and the theatrical freedom of the Singspiel in The Magic Flute. La clemenza di Tito is often seen as a commission which was forced on Mozart by the Emperor, who wanted the piece for his coronation, and the fact that the recitatives weren't written by the composer himself has contributed to the work's dismissal as a 'Mozart masterpiece'. Yet Tito deserves a reassessment: the instrumentation is sublime even by Mozart's standards, with prominent roles for the clarinet and basset horn, and the ensembles (of which there are a much larger number than would be the case in early eighteenth-century opere serie) rank with the composer's best.
Metastasio's libretto had already been set over forty times before Mozart came along, and its stilted setting in the Rome of 80 A.D. can tend to distance a modern audience from some of the events that take place in it. Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's 1984 production for the Met combines classical backdrops with eighteenth-century costumes as if to emphasise the Enlightenment issues hinted at by the libretto; it also injects the text with a bit of extra humanity without losing its elegance. If the experience of waiting between certain arias for props such as a table and chairs to be brought on manually dates the production by technical standards, it is difficult to resist the natural glamour of Ponnelle's particular kind of theatre. And the director certainly has the measure of the main characters' angst-ridden situations, for instance Sesto's grief at his betrayal of his friend, Tito.
Aside from Graham's extraordinary role portrayal, the cast was also distinguished by the presence of tenor Ramón Vargas in the title role. Hot on the heels of his more familiar Puccini role of Rodolfo seen at the Met a few weeks ago (review here), Vargas actually surpassed himself in the Mozart. Although his tone is fuller than one may expect from the average Mozart tenor, Vargas' voice has an agility that allows him to perform the piece with conviction. He also brought the depth of expression and emotion of his verismo roles to the opera. Perhaps the very top of his voice is not as secure as it could be, but this was a deeply felt and moving portrayal of a potentially two-dimensional role.
Also impressive was Tamar Iveri as Vitellia. Initially she underprojected and there was a slight wobble in her voice, but after a while she made some impressive sounds and her rendition of the rondo 'Non più di fiori' showed both her ability to control her instrument and to bring nuance to the text. She was also very strong on the acting side. Anke Vondung's portrayal of Annio was another success story, especially striking in her full-voiced account of 'Torna di Tito a lato' in Act II. For my taste, Heidi Grant Murphy was not in the same league as Servilia, although she too improved as the evening went on, and Oren Gradus was rather stolid as Publio. Nevertheless, there was much to enjoy here.
Initially, I was concerned that Harry Bicket might be about to race through the piece without a thought for expression, because his pacing of the overture was rather rapid and lacked both humour and detail. However, by the middle of the first act he had begun to find the warmth of the score, bringing out numerous details and being generous to both vocal and instrumental soloists.
Only three performances remain, but it's definitely worth the trip.
Recent reviews of The Metropolitan Opera:
La boheme with Angela Gheorghiu and Ramon Vargas
Ernani with Thomas Hampson and Marcello Giordani
Tristan und Isolde with Deborah Voigt
Lucia di Lammermoor with Natalie Dessay
Recent review of the Washington National Opera:
Tamerlano with Placido Domingo
Picture credits: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera