He couldn’t refuse the generous stipend, could he, not with a baby on the way, all the debts, and the worry that he might not get paid for his just completed Singspiel, The Magic Flute! So Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) accepted the commission for an opera to celebrate the coronation of the Austrian Emperor Leopold II as king of Bohemia. Mozart took on the task, although he was asked to compose it as “Opera Seria,” a style he considered old-hat and had abandoned years before.
Opera Seria, very popular in the late 17th and early18th Centuries, had the story of an opera moved along via recitative, and the arias, that stopped the action, devoted to the character’s feelings and the singers’ often exaggerated virtuosity. Most arias followed the prescribed A-B-A form, sometimes even repeating that. Often the result was a crashing bore if the singers were not of exceptional caliber. Many of the male parts, now performed by mezzo-sopranos, then were given to the haunting voices of the famous Castrati singers of the day. (Just in case you are not familiar with the ghastly history, these gifted singers were castrated at puberty to preserve their youthful voice level.)
I could go on with more data about Opera Seria learned in my college days, but I think that as boring as the old form itself. Purists will violently disagree, but three honest people in the audience, volunteered to me that they fell asleep during the performance. I suspect that happened to a goodly number more!
Back to Mozart and his acceptance of the commission: A great deal of unsubstantiated myth has grown up over the creation of Clemenza, the last of Mozart’s 22 operas. Supposedly he completed it within barely 18 days, turning the recitativo portions over to his pupil, Zuessmayr. Then there is the question as to whether he was already stricken with the illness that had him destined for that famous unmarked grave, just three months after finishing the work. How did this opera interfere with the creation of the fabulous Requiem for the mysterious stranger who ominously commissioned it just then?
We’ll never know, but we do know that when Clemenza premiered in Prague in 1791, it was not well received. Although performed fairly often early on, when it premiered in England, for instance, in 1806, it was not repeated until 1957, some 151 years later. It is not part of the established repertory of any current opera company I know about. But then so are not any of the incredibly 40 (!!!) other opera versions of this “noble” story that preceded Mozart’s effort.
The current production, first staged at the Met in 1984, has a remarkable cast, which performed magnificently for this transmission. Every nuance was perfection; not a single note misfired; not a single tremolo perceived – the result: incredible beauty – much appreciated in the movie audience with some members applauding after almost every aria.
The plot of the opera simplified, has a spurned princess demanding that her “companion,” who is besotted with love for her, assassinate his best friend, the Roman emperor Tito. There is a sub-plot to provide more ethical and aria materiel. Tito survives, the instigator-princess finally confesses, and Tito, most nobly, forgives “tutti.” The jubilation of everyone involved gives Mozart a finale so goose-bump-eliciting that you forgive any earlier boredom caused by the antiquated form.
As said, the cast was absolutely superb, with probably the best performance by the Latvian mezzo-soprano Elina Garanca, as Sesto, the assassin-lover. (You may remember her marvelously sensual Carmen at the Met.) The scheming Vitellia was beauteously sung by the Milanese mezzo-soprano Barbara Frittoli. The other pants-part fell to the talented American mezzo-soprano, Kate Lindsey. Lucy Crowe, the English soprano, made a charming Met debut as the sub-plot’s Servilia.
Now to the two truly male roles in this worthy ensemble: They were filled impressively by the Italian tenor, Giuseppe Filianoti as Tito, and Brooklyn’s own basso, Oren Gradus as Publio, the captain of the guards.
Every single person I spoke to agreed that the “singing was superb,” but several questioned the costumes and sets of this opera the action of which takes place in Rome 80 AD.
The chorus, (and it also performed magnificently,) and the conniving Vitellia at times are wearing huge, opulent, Marie-Antoinette 18th Century farthingales. Tito however, is garbed in a stately sort of house robe and Publio wears a strange something-or-other that has a semblance of toga folds below the waist.
As for the two pants-part roles: they are wearing an imaginative version of possible Roman military garb with high boots that were the rage in Elizabethan times. Not a real toga in sight!
All this is a Jean-Pierre Ponelle production that is a revival of its Met performances of 1984. Did he clothe the cast and chorus so opulently to divert the audience from the possibly boring aspect of an Opera Seria? It certainly caused discussion with current audience members. The set with its fake marble, works well for the frequent exits and entrances.
The upshot of it all? I enjoyed myself despite it all! Of course that was because of the quality of the all-around, splendid musical performance under the aegis of the British conductor Harry Bicket, who is a baroque and classical-music specialist. He had high praise for the Met orchestra, as do I. Its members seemingly can handle everything from Handel to anything ultra modern handed to them.
And then I liked many of the melodies better than I remembered them from the one time I saw this opera before, admiring Mozart’s subtle innovations to the hackneyed form.
Also very enjoyable were the interviews hosted by the ever-vibrant Susan Graham. She elicited charming personal tidbits from the performers, and protected them with “toi/toi/tois” to ward off any possible disasters during the rest of their performance. She fully succeeded.
Do catch the recorded encore of this transmission at the WP’s City Center Cinema15, and NewRoc’s City18, at 6:30 December 19th, 2012.
Here are some comments from other members of the audience. Some are from neighboring areas that do not have easy access to these transmissions.
Irene Kubat of the Bronx “had a wonderful time.” She had attended this opera just the week before at the actual Met. Originally from Prague, she voiced that she really enjoyed the HD version even more. ”Unless you sit in at least a $350 seat, you miss a lot. American opera houses are just too large. I like the HD close-ups.” She thought all the singer’s performances were “marvelous” and appreciates that the Met always gives us first class singers.
Joan Drisdoll of Hartsdale admitted that she has trouble with trouser roles. She can’t accept the mezzos as males. She and her husband, Graham, admired all the singing, but found the first act too long, preferring the structure and music of the more varied second.
Sarah Vorder Bruegge of Greenwich was one of the courageous people who confessed that she fell asleep during the first act. It was all so tedious and repetitive, she felt.
A whole contingent of residents, (usually about ten or so,) of the retirement community, “Westchester Meadows” in Valhalla, regularly attends the HDs.
Shirley Leitner explained that the facility’s bus conveniently brings them and picks them up. She praised the Testo performance especially, but thought all voices were excellent. She always enjoys the intermission interviews and was especially grateful that this opera had a happy ending. “It isn’t often that you don’t end up with a number of bodies strewn around.”
Dora Fisher, also of the Meadows, found this a very pleasurable production. She said “the Testo was unbelievably good” and praised the conductor. “Of course the plot is ridiculous, but then opera is not exactly true to life.”
Alma Angrilli, another member of the contingent, said “the excellent singing and the music carried the whole thing. After all, it is Mozart and that combination can’t be faulted.” (I tend to agree with her!)