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Scott Cantrell
The Dallas Morning News, February 2006

Conventional wisdom has long dismissed La clemenza di Tito as an also-ran of Mozart's late operas, a hurriedly assembled essay in the outdated opera seria medium.

Its tale, of a goody-two-shoes Roman emperor who pardons a close friend's near-fatal conspiracy, stretches credibility. And it doesn't help that Tito's two (male) sidekicks are sung by women. (Mozart originally intended Sesto to be a tenor, but the theater had already hired a soprano castrato for the role, now usually sung by a mezzo.)But this Paris Opera production, staged and designed by husband-and-wife partners Ursel and Karl-Ernst Herrmann, turns Clemenza into high drama. We see Sesto, Tito's closest friend, agonizing between devotion to the emperor and love for Vitellia, and finally driven by guilt to near madness. Even Vitellia, who wants Tito murdered so she can seize the throne, turns out to be no mere femme fatale but a fairly complicated figure. (DVD extras, including a synopsis and a discussion by the principals, provide useful introductions to the lesser-known opera.)

The music needs no apologies. In so dramatic a realization, with singers so attentive to nuances of word and tone, even the longish recitatives sustain interest. And in the arias and (especially) duets, Mozart's gift of melody is undimmed.

Susan Graham is a riveting Sesto, his passion rendered in vivid declamation, a vast range of vocal color and genuine virtuosity. Catherine Nagelstad is no less compelling as Vitellia, with a gorgeous and elegantly inflected soprano if not the last word in coloratura clarity.

Christoph Prégardien's tenor loses some nap as the opera progresses, but his Tito is a surprisingly layered figure. Hannah Esther Minutillo is too girlishly coiffed as Annio, but she sings brightly and arrestingly. Completing the cast are Roland Bracht as a sturdy Publio and Ekaterina Siurina as a girlish Servilia. Sylvain Cambreling gets stylish, keenly characterized playing from the orchestra, and the chorus is good.

Sets are pretty spare, with neoclassical gestures here and there. Costumes are haute couture – Ms. Nagelstad's crimson dress is stunning – with long, narrow coats for the male characters. Lighting, by Mr. Hermann and Heinz Ilsanker, is particularly telling. Add high-resolution video and audio and you've got a major new contribution to Mozart's 250th birthday year.

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