A superb young cast sparks Mozart’s “Clemenza” at the Met
On Friday, the Metropolitan Opera opened the second of three Mozart revivals this month with La Clemenza di Tito. This performance featured a strong young cast dominated by Giuseppe Filianoti in the title role and the flexible mezzo of Elina Garanca as Sesto, the best friend of the Roman emperor Titus turned would-be assassin.
Written in the last year of Mozart’s life, Tito is the most rarely heard of the composer’s mature operas, dashed off in 18 days for Leopold II’s coronation ceremony. Although popular in the years following the composer’s death, it fell out of fashion in the 19th century, and took a century to arrive at the Met.
The title role offers superb opportunities for a high-lying tenor with a flexible instrument that can blend into ensembles and soar above the stave. Filianoti filled all of these requirements, adding a kookiness to Tito that made this stoic ruler just weird enough to be lovable. His slightly crazed look whenever he’s about to pardon one of his assassins will probably play well in the Live in HD telecast.
Elīna Garanča shone as Sesto, the opera’s travesti hero. The Latvian mezzo navigated easily through the difficult coloratura in Parto tu bien miu, the Act I aria where the would-be killer screws up his courage before the assassination attempt. In the second act, Sesto’s slow, gorgeous rondo declaring his guilt featured this singer at her moving best.
Every assassination plot needs a motive, and in Tito it’s jealousy and a desire to become Empress that drives the scheming Vitellia. Played here by Barbara Frittoli (in an astonishing, wide-hipped black gown and corset) this was an impressive villainess who quickly morphs into the opera’s heroine. Mozart gave his soprano a killer part, with a high, challenging tessitura that must convey seduction, scheming and ultimately, redemption. Frittoli’s voice sounded a little smallish and compressed in the first act, but bloomed fully in the second. Her Act II rondo Non più di (with accompanying basset horn solo) was astonishing—with athletic, melodic singing balanced right on the edge of operatic sanity.
These young singers were surrounded by a strong supporting cast. Lucy Crowe made an impressive house debut as Servilla, drawing warm applause for her single Act II aria. The agile American mezzo Kate Lindsey excelled as Annio, the opera’s second travesti character and Servilla’s intended. They were a touching pair of lovers in the Act I duet, one of the early vocal highlights. Baritone Oren Gradus, who seems to sing everywhere these days, held down the bottom end as the servant Publio.
Despite one shaky moment in the overture, Harry Bicket led a taut, stylish performance, keeping the opera moving toward the engaging drama of the second act. The Met chorus, standing in for the entire populace of Rome and decked out in appropriate 18th-century attire, provided able support in the crowd scenes in Act II, particularly the bright, blazing final sextet.
This production by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle is the only one the Met has ever staged. Though it premiered in 1984, the staging remains handsome, with line-drawn, representational scenery surrounded by crumbling marble architecture suggesting Rome’s rapid decline.
La Clemenza di Tito runs through Dec. 10. The Dec. 1 performance will be broadcast in theaters as part of the Met Live in HD series.
Paul J. Pelkonen is a freelance writer and the author of the classical music blog Superconductor.