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The Age of Elegance

New York
Rose Theatre, Lincoln Centre
08/03/2008 -  
“Mostly Mozart Festival”:
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: La Clemenza di Tito (Concert version)

Toby Spence (Tito), Hillevi Martinpelto (Vitellia), Sarah Tynan (Servillia), Alice Coote (Sesto), Fiona Murphy (Annio), Matthew Rose (Publio)
Concert Chorale of New York, James Bagwell (Director), Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Edward Gardner (conductor)

Edward Gardner (© Christian Colberg)

It seems unimaginable that a) Mozart’s last opera was his most popular opera for a good 30 years after his death; b) this and his other “serious opera” Idomeneo went into virtual hibernation for the next 160 years, c) when they were finally revived at the Met in 1984 by James Levine, they again achieved a certain popularity, and d) are now taken for granted as one of the great Mozart operas.

Just 48 hours ago, a long concert aria from Idomeneo was sung in Lincoln Centre, and at Rose Theatre the (almost) complete Clemenza di Tito was offered to a packed-out audience.

In one way, it was a shame that we had to be given a concert version, even if the concert hall was the beautiful Rose Theatre. After all the Ponselle production at the Metropolitan Opera, while old, has never been surpassed. One can get a bit tired of these quite serious arias, only a few of which are outstanding . But heard against the classical Augustean setting, with its grisaille effects and scrim curtain changes, with exits and entrances so fluid and so necessary, the music’s never-ending nobility actually makes sense.

On the other hand, with the 30-odd virtuosi from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE), and a cast of mainly English singers, we who missed the changes of scene and stately sets could hear some very elegant music indeed.

The man in charge, Edward Gardner, was making his New York debut, and from the first bars of the overture, he kept up a brisk pace, even getting through the recitatives (few by Mozart himself, but most important) without any laggard motions. Gardner himself could be almost violent in his movements, but this never shattered the OAE, who played with that finesse and elegance for which is so famed.

If one had to choose a single player, t would obviously be Antony Pay, whose solo basset clarinet in two arias was as flowing as Hillevi Martinpelto who played Vitelli. But the audience favorite—for good reason—was Alice Coote as Sesto . Yes, she has the most beautiful aria in the opera (also with virtuoso clarinet), Parto, ma tu ben mio, but Ms. Coote showed honest drama both in her movements and her voice.

(The original Sesto was a 250-pound castrato,. The OAE wisely decided that verisimilitude can only be taken so far.)

No other female was out of place, all were dramatically excellent within the confines of the concert performance. Only two men were here, and Mathew Rose, as Publio had a fine baritone voice.

Toby Spence had a pleasing tenor (which got better and better until Ariae all'impero, amici Dei showed him at his best). Alas, Mr. Spence was hardly the most imposing figure for a great Emperor. The one ‘movement”, when he doffed jacket and sat on a chair to interrogate Sesto looked less operatic than a Guantanimo interrogation.

Then we have New York’s contribution, the Concert Chorale, under James Bagwel While Mozart might have been constricted by the form of opera seria, the choral pieces could well have been outtakes from the Requiem on which Mozart was working simultaneously with the opera. The Collegiate Chorale gave a kinetic meaning to the word “dignified.”

A hint: Patrons of the Rose Theatre for the rest of the “Mostly Mozart” festival should avoid the lines for drinks and head to the almost-hidden art installations by Australian artist Lynette Wallworth. Both are interactive, both are fascinating. More at a later review.

Harry Rolnick



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