Rainer Trost - Tito Vespasiano (Tenor, premiered by Gaetano Ottani)
Laura Aikin - Vitellia (Soprano, premiered by Caterina Visconti)
Raffaella Milanesi - Sesto (Soprano, premiered by Gaetano Majorano, detto "Caffarelli")
Arantza Ezenarro - Servilia (Soprano)
Valer Sabadus - Annio (Counter Tenor, Mezzo)
Flavio Ferri-Benedetti - Publio (Counter Tenor, Soprano)
L'Arte del mondo - Werner Ehrhardt, dir.
Libretto: Metastasio. Premiere: 4 November 1752, Naples, Teatro di San Carlo
I am always a bit nervous when buying a "live" recording. The musicians' and singers' faux pas, which one would barely notice when listening to an inspired performance in an opera house get blown out of proportion and become irritants that make on want to put the CD's on a shelf high enough so as to be unreachable without a ladder. In the case of this recording, however, I need not have worried, for it is splendid throughout in ever conceivable way. This is the best "live" recording that I have heard in many a year.
Other than said nervousness, I was looking forward to finally listen to Gluck's version of "La Clemenza" and compare it to Mozart's version of " La clemenza di Tito, written in 1791, written in only 18 days and in such haste that the secco recitatives were supplied by another composer, probably Franz Xaver Süssmayr (of later Mozart Requiem fame) according to Mozart's earliest biographer Niemetschek. It premiered on September 6th for the Emperor's coronation festivities in Prague. Sadly, Mozart fell ill while in Prague and thus began the slide toward his death on December 5th. Whether this was due to the exertion of his compositional marathon or because he heard reports that the crowned Emperor's wife Maria Luisa of Spain dismissed it as "una porcheria tedesca" (literally in Italian "German swinishness," but most idiomatically translated "A German pig sty")* has not come down to us in writing or legend.
I hate to speak ill of the dead, especially Mozart, but the reason I wanted to hear Gluck's version was due to the fact that I consider Mozart's "La Clemenza" his worst opera; a thoroughly boring hack-job with nary an interesting note or harmonic progression with the sole exception of the Act II rondo aria "Non più di fiori" with the unforgettable basset horn obbligato. Mozart's "La Clemenza" is insufferably boring, both due to the Metastasian libretto mutilated by Calzabigi which is full of platitudes, as well as due to music that, for Mozart, is singularly uninspired and trite. I am happy to report that Gluck's version of this opera is far more entertaining and deserving of performances today than Mozart's.
And now, about this recording: The singing is in tune (always important!) with excellent vocal elegance, virtuosity and projection. Special mention must go to Raffaella Milanesi (whose versatile, sfumato-like dark soprano is quickly becoming a favorite of mine) and Laura Aikin, though purely on the basis of having the best and most difficult arias, written by Gluck for two of the greatest singers of his day, not because they sound better than most other members of the cast. The orchestral playing is generally very good and, thanks to Werner Ehrhardt's good taste, provides a lively and flexible partnership in sound with the singers.
La Clemenza di Tito is one of those operas where the opera's namesake only has a secondary role in spite of receiving top billing, so listening to Rainer Trost's resonant tenor in Tito's three arias makes one want to hear more. Counter tenor Flavio Ferri-Benedetti is the weakest link in the chain of splendid singers. One of the most Mozartesque arias in the opera, Publio's lovely "Sia lontano ogni cimento" containing passages that are rather similar to passages in the Queen of the Night's famous aria "Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen," comes out sounding a bit shrill and forced. Arantza Ezenarro's lyric soprano voice is perfect for Servilia's arias, which, although not as technically demanding as Vitellia's and Sesto's, still require quite a bit of technique combined with sustained legatos from the singer. Annio's two arias both come in Act I, which is a pity, since listening to his low counter tenor is a pleasure.
The first masterpiece aria we encounter is Sesto's "Opprimete i contumacy," written for the castrato Caffarelli, who premiered the role. The orchestra starts out with tutti which has an effect that at the time could only have been experienced by Austrian troops facing the charge from Frederick the Great's Prussian Bayreuth Dragoons at the Battle of Hohenfriedberg. The aria, all glorious 8 minutes and 15 seconds of it, then proceeds to alternate between the most tender and delicate passages in Empfindsamer Stil alternating with Sturm und Drang vocal fireworks across 2 octaves and a bit more. Caffarelli must have lived up to the written accounts we have of his fabulous voice; Raffaella Milanesi fully lives up to the demands of Gluck's bravura composing, which is no mean feat indeed.
The second masterpiece aria is the very last one in Act I, "Quando sara il di." It clocks in at a staggering 11:38" yet it doesn't seem a second too long. It has a beautiful oboe obbligato and Laura Aikin impeccably demonstrates what Caterina Visconti was capable of as the original Vitellia.
Wise opera composers through the ages have known how to pace their works so the music (like a proper wine tasting) went from "brilliant" in Act I to "genius" in Act II before reaching "divine" in Act III. Thus trying to get into all the finer points of Acts II and III would test the patience of the reader. However, among the many splendid arias in Act II we find the famous aria written for Sesto: "Se mai senti spirarti sul volto." It was Gluck's first Europe-wide hit and provoked as admiration as debate for its unusual and nowhere-in-the-rule-book treatment of dissonances. In order to finally resolve the debate pro et contra, operatic cognoscenti took the score to the highly respected Neapolitan composer and teacher Francesco Durante, asking him to pass judgment on these novel "diabolic in musica." While declining to say whether Gluck's aria was in accordance with the rules of composition, he declared that he and all his colleagues "should have been proud to have conceived and written such a passage." Gluck himself thought well enough of the piece to rework it in his Iphigénie en Tauride a quarter of a century later. Yet whereas in Iphigénie this aria comes across as a great aria, its setting in this early work makes its genius all that more breathtaking. No wonder Europe was in an uproar over this music! La Milanesi makes the listener melt into a small puddle on the floor with her singing of this beautiful aria.
In this opera, Gluck proceeds from composing in the north German style (viz., e.g., C.P.E. Bach and Benda) to an increasingly sophisticated style that combines the best of the elegant style of the Neapolitan school with the best dramatical aspects of Handel (Gluck was in London 1745-46 and undoubtedly met the famous doyen of English music) and the North Italian/Roman school (which he would have picked up on in his collaboration with violin virtuoso Pietro Locatelli from 1750 ff. "La Clemenza" is not through-composed as "Orfeo ed Euridice" ten years hence would be; there are plenty of secco recitatives in Gluck's composing during this period - I might add very well paced and sung dramatically in this recording, as they should be - but much of what would characterize his "reform operas" is already in place. Many arias have simple, though never naïve or boring, quality to them, eschewing passage work in favor of the general principle "one note = one syllable." Yet at this point, Gluck was also not so far removed in time from baroque sensibilities that he didn't throw in bravura arias that Handel or Hasse would have been proud of. Still, unlike Hasse, Gluck is never backward-looking, even in bravura arias (by virtue of rapid changes of moods and sentiments that are more complex than the traditional contrasting A-B-A baroque aria), but rather a John the Baptist to Mozart's Jesus.
The only major peeve I have with this CD set is the booklet. Who's the genius at Deutsche Harmonia Mundi that decided to provide a track listing without the incipits of the arias and recitatives and then proceeded to omit track numbers in the libretto (not to mention the biographies of all the singers)? Most irritating!
The sound quality of the recording is quite good. It is full and resonant, avoiding the dryness trap that so many live recordings fall into. Unfortunately it does not quite escape from that other pitfall of live recordings: balancing. The singers tend to dominate the orchestra and the brass (wonderfully au naturale yet quite in tune!) dominates the woodwinds and strings. This is only a minor issue, one which I doubt most listeners will pick up on like I do, having listened to so many recordings. Yes, one can hear that it is a live performance through the occasional imprecisions in synchronization between the orchestra and singers and the odd note being off by 1/100th of a tone, but again, this won't be noticeable to most listeners since I didn't really notice anything during the first run-through of the recording because I was sitting in rapt bliss listening to the music. I only noticed when applying a very critical ear to subsequent listenings.
This is a world premiere recording you won't regret buying, especially since it will definitely become a collector's item in no time, selling for much more than today. So don't wait too long making up your mind.
* This remark is doubly ironic in that etymologists have speculated that the family name "Mozart," rather unusual in German, was derived from a slang word for "stable boy," though closer in meaning to "muck raker," which the family euphemized to "Mozart" at some point in time when they rose above the muck around their boots.