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15 April, 2000

La Clemenza di Tito at the NYCO - a magnificent evening in every respect

New York City Opera

Sat 15th April 2000

TitoMark A. Thomsen
SestoLorraine Hunt Lieberson
VitelliaMarie Plette
PublioJake Gardner
ServiliaTracy Dahl
AnnioLaura Tucker

La Clemenza di Tito at the NYCO was a magnificent evening in every respect. The voices and orchestra did the piece justice, while the production was at once sympathetic and æsthetic.

The set was a typical fenestrated Roman red-brick wall 'ruin' as back-drop with a full-width raised walkway behind a well trodden lawn and prominent paved podium. The costumes and (very) few props were European 18th century.

How Titus got his reputation for mercy is a mystery. He reigned for only 2 years and was previously notorious for his cruelty in the war with the Jews, killing up to 500 hostages every day in the siege of Jerusalem, according to Christopher Jones in the program notes. His reign also saw the eruption of Vesuvius (hardly of his doing!) and a huge fire on the Capitol destroyed the Temple of Jupiter and other major buildings. There was also a major plague in Rome - from which Titus himself also succumbed.

It is said that Domitian, his younger brother and successor, was so despised during his 15 year reign that memories of ANY previous emperor would have been held fonder. Needless to say, Jewish historians was not as kind to Titus, having destroyed the Second Temple.

'La Clemenza' has a surfeit of soprano voices with both Sesto and Annio being written for castrati. Titus is a challenging, high tenor role. It has more demands and fewer rewards than Don Ottavio, for instance. For other male voices, there is only one aria and short concerted pieces for Publio, the sole baritone.

From its short introductory piece to its amazing and rhythmic ending this opera is full of innovation. I once disliked opera seria, but now I hear things that make me believe that Wagner, Rossini and others took cues from this consummate example. Although Clemenza has fallen from an early favour with the public, it clearly brought some new blood to the composers who followed. It is as though Mozart knew he would soon be dead within months and 'more of the same' would simply not do.

Listen to the woodwinds! Hear the 'syncopation' effect of the last moments of the opera. Marvel at the what might be the orchestral precursors of the Rossinian patters. Listen to the range of voice required for the rôles. Despite a generally low tessitura, Vitellia has notes up to a D. Witness the staggering dramatic effects of frustration, indecision and conflicts of love, friendship and duty which are so reflected in the music.

But I digress. People know 'Parto, parto ..' and the first act duet but this opera is full of other melodies to take home, some being very complex and 'long line', the more so in Act II. This may have allowed Bellini and Rossini to make the melodic innovations they did.

Marie Plette sang a suitably schizophrenic Vitellia and Sesto was played with panache by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. Mark Thomsen was a commanding emperor, if imperfect vocally. Tracy Dahl and Laura Tucker also sang well. Jake Gardner as Publio was also good, but he just did not have enough music to sing.

The orchestra was small as befits the period, with the benefit (one assumes) of the newly installed State Theater "enhancement" (is it amplification?) which was not obtrusive to my ear. In place of a harpsichord there appeared to be a grand piano. The volume was more than adequate with sympathetic tempi from mæstro Harry Bicket.

There was then the biggest ovation I have heard in NYC for quite some time with repeated bravos and even standing ovations from some. Remarkable too, was the appearance in the curtain calls of a production representative (was it Stephen Wadsworth the director?). I have never seen this done before at the END of a season!

comments by Andrew Byrne ..

PS - after I posted a shortened version of this 'review' on a popular internet list to my surprise, I received by reply the following note from the director: "Hi there Dr. Byrne, City Opera passed on your internet report of LA CLEMENZA DI TITO to me last night, and I thought I'd let you know that yes, indeed, that WAS Stephen Wadsworth who took a bow with the company. And we are glad you enjoyed it. Best, Stephen Wadsworth"