Since I heard of its existence, it's been somewhere vaguely in the back of my mind that I'd like to hear Harmonia Mundi's recently released La Clemenza di Tito. Mostly because it has at its helm René Jacobs, who earned himself a permanent place in my heart with his fabulous Figaro. But these things cost money so if I'd thought about it, I wasn't expecting to hear this Clemenza any time soon. Concert FM to the rescue: it was last weekend's Sunday opera. Now, with the month-later Met broadcasts gone, I tend to neglect Opera on Sunday somewhat. I did manage about half of Mayr's Ginevra di Scozia the previous weekend, but that was the first time I'd tuned in since Rodelinda back in May. I didn't really expect anything as exciting as this Clemenza to be offered up, and yet there it was. Brilliant.
And it truly is brilliant. Clemenza has the potential to be rather on the dry side, conventional and stuffy and lacking in the colour and vitality of other Mozart operas. René Jacobs, however, makes it live, and thrillingly so. While keeping it all appropriately dignified, he nevertheless gives us a Clemenza which is fast-paced, emotionally charged and surprisingly intimate. As in that Figaro, the fortepiano continuo is highly involved in the action. In the orchestra, too, there are some incredible things going on: Vitellia's entrance at one point is marked by a lightning bolt of sound straight from a gothic horror movie. I don't necessarily think Clemenza is a boring opera - there are too many hits in it for that - but I also hadn't imagined it could be quite as interesting as this.
In the title role is the lovely Mark Padmore. With that sweet, limpid and rather youthful sound, he actually manages to make all the clemency almost plausible. Rather than a booming, stonily regal Emperor, he's a warm and sympathetic human being. His incredible acts of forgiveness came across less like a grand statement of philosophy and more like just the inevitable result of his inability to a hurt a fly. I like this kind of Tito. Alexandrina Pendatchanska is a frenetic and intense Vitellia. I wasn't too convinced by her in Act One, where she came across rather like Cruella DeVil, so cacklingly evil that, though her villainy was believable, her seductive power over Sesto really wasn't. But once Vitellia's doubts start up, she grows far more persuasive, and her "Non piu di fiori" is utterly credible. I still, truth be told, prefer my Mozart heroines (even the scary ones) sung by more lyrical voices than this. I like low low notes in Mozart - like those in "Non piu di fiori" - best when they come almost as a surprise, lower than you'd expect the voice you're hearing to drop. The voice thins out a little, and the phrase sounds almost spoken. A weighter, more dramatic voice like Alexandrina's can make a much bigger, more boldly projected and "sung" sound out of them, and that's just what she does. Certainly it's a fantastic sound, but the effect is a little too verismo for my delicate sensibilities. I will say, though, that her contribution to the Act II trio with Sesto and Publio provided one of the greatest aural thrills of the whole recording.
Bernarda Fink makes an excellent Sesto, striking just the right balance between swaggering bravado and total lovelorn hopelessness. "Parto, parto" was charged with nervous energy; "Deh, per questo istante solo" was a thing of shimmering beauty. And yet for me the mezzo of the hour was actually Marie-Claude Chappuis' radiantly sung Annio, who had me hanging on her every note. Hers is a lighter, prettier sound than Bernarda's and they complement each other wonderfully. Sunhae Im's Servilia seems to have wandered in from an entirely different opera, singing with a giggly, soubrettish archness more akin to Zerlina than Roman aristocracy. At first this was a little weird, but I have to admit that she grew on me. I wouldn't want always to hear Servilia sung quite this way, but as far as possible, she made it work, and even if the voice isn't hugely distinctive, it's still rather pretty. Sergio Foresti completes the cast as a very nice Publio.
A magnificently realised Clemenza, beautifully sung and full of life. René Jacobs, you win again.