I’ve been involved in a lot of on-line discussions about various productions; live and DVD, of La clemenza di Tito. Oddly perhaps, none of them have ever referenced the 2005 Zürich recording with Jonas Kaufmann in the title role. Today I think I found out why. Basically it’s rather dull, except where it’s unintentionally funny.
It’s a Jonathan Miller production but Dr. Miller seems to have performed a lobotomy on himself as it seems to be almost entirely devoid of ideas. Costumes are 1930s fascist meets mafia but that idea isn’t taken anywhere(1). The set is that ubiquitous cliché, a rotating spiral staircase. The “action” is almost entirely limited to people walking on, doing their thing, and walking off. Acting is at a premium. This is especially problematic as the recits have been replaced by dialogue. Mercifully, at least the dialogue is in Italian (albeit in a variety of odd accents) but it really doesn’t do anyone any favours. What acting there is comes mainly from Vessilina Kasarova’s Sesto and the ever reliable Lileana Nikiteanu as Annio. The latter is a bit over the top and unintentionally funny but it breaks the monotony.
The best singing also comes from Kasarova and Nikiteanu though Malin Hartelius also makes a pretty decent fist of Servilia. The big problems lie with some pretty odd casting choices. Even ten years ago Herr Kaufmann was on the heavy side for Mozart. He’s got the notes but it’s a bit like watching a Tiger tank trying to negotiate a slalom course. He, and Dr. Miller, don’t seem to have any idea of who Tito is. He makes no sense as a sort of Mussolini figure. He’s not nearly bumptious enough but he isn’t sinister enough to be anything nastier. He’s just this dude. Eva Mei’s Vitellia seems even less comfortable. I’ve seen Women’s Institute meetings chaired with more passion than Ms. Mei can muster. She seems completely focussed on sounding beautiful and, really, that’s about the last thing Vitellia should be focussed on. Günther Groissböck is kind of bland as Publio too. The chorus is very good though and Franz Welser-Most manages a fairly bouncy reading of the score from the Zürich orchestra playing modern instruments.
Felix Breisach had the unenviable job of filming this. There’s not much action and often the set is very dark so the many close ups are perhaps understandable though he goes well beyond the norm here. Even the crowd scenes are mostly shot as head shots. Technically the disk is fine with a decent 16:9 picture and solid, clear surround sound. Extras are limited to some trailers for other EMI disks and the booklet is limited to an essay printed in miniscule purple type on purple paper so I didn’t read it. There are English, French, German, Spanish and Italian subtitles.
I think this one for either Clemenza completists or the more rabid Kaufmann fans. The best thing going here is Kasarova and you can see her Sesto in the vastly superior, if a bit quirky, Salzburg production. Traditionalists might be happier with the old Ponelle film, which is characteristically campy but enjoyable.
fn1 Tito and Publio appear in some sort of uniform in Act 1 and the final scene. In between they wear suits. Publio’s switch to civvies to arrest Sesto seems particularly odd. The uniforms are weird even by the standards of military tailoring in opera. basically they are wearing British service dress of the period, complete with Sam Browns, but with black jackboots and black shirts and ties. This last bit is hard to figure out until the camera is in very close and is a sartorial disaster. A stand up tunic collar would have made a whole lot more sense. Also (pedant alert) why are the emperor of Rome and his chief military sidekick wearing the rank badges of a first lieutenant?