Mozart's last opera is a seria, whose secco recitative (sung speech accompanied by forte piano) was done by his student Franz Sussmayr instead of the composer... So Zurich Opera uses that as an excuse to make an Italian Singspiel out of it.
All secco recit are replaced with Italian dialog. Might have worked had the cast been able to speak the language convincingly, but they don't. Even the lone native speaker Eva Mei sounds unnatural... Worst off is the magnificent Vesselina Kasarova, whose speaking voice is a tenth the size and masculinity of her singing voice. So she darkens it, but relapses at times in more dramatic passages... and that's just so darn weird.
Staging is minimalistic and updated to look like a very dark 1930's Italy with Tito looking like Mussolini. Very bare and very static.
Maestro Welser-Moest gives a vibrant read from the orchestra pit. Tempi on the brisk side the whole show (which works quite well, especially during the overture... almost waltzy at times). Tho the orchestra sometimes is too loud during some numbers (and the sound engineer somehow really favors the orchestra over the voices).
Kasarova is the Sesto incarnated (at least when she is singing). Very large stage presence... even though her dark suit tends to blend into the dark background. Really saves the 'assassination and burning of Rome' sequence that ends Act I... Nothing happening there except for her Sesto coming out and standing there at the center singing about the commotions (after having done the deed, apperently...even though the music doesn't say someone is stabbed until the middle of that scene). It takes a great dramatist to pull that scene off with all the disconnection with the staging, but I think she does pull it off.
Eva Mei is miscast as Vitellia, I'm afraid. Not dramatic enough a voice (and it is getting disturbingly shaky even in lower passages), and has a serious case of the 'shifty eyes' from trying too hard not to look at the camera. No chemistry with Sesto... I think she tries hard, but this role just doesn't work for her.
Jonas Kaufmann is a fine Tito... A 'too good to be allowed' kind of Tito,... who possibly was carrying on a gay affair with Sesto (a whole lot more chemistry there than between Sesto and Vitellia). A bit odd for his big tenor voice (it's a bit too heavy and slow for the Act II 'Se all'impero'). Interestingly he shrinks before Kasarova's very imposingly manic Sesto during the Act II 'Deh per questo istante solo', and it is more like the dominant ex-lover is goading the sensitive ex he tried to kill. Never heard it done like that before... Interesting...and liking it more with each re-viewing.
Malin Hartelius is a wonderful Servilia, and even sounds natural during the spoken dialog even with her accent. Liliana Nikiteanu sings well as Annio, but looks like an escapee from the romantic comedy show next door... odd fit especially when sharing stage with Kasarova's Sesto. Gunther Goissboeck is physically imposing as Publio, but has surprisingly light voice that doesn't fare well against the orchestra and sound engineering.
It's both a good and bad show at the same time... Think the spoken dialog is rather a disaster, and the static choreography doesn't help... But reluctant to rate lower with such a performance by Kasarova, Hartelius, Kaufmann, and Welser-Moest.
My favorite DVD of this opera is still the 2003 Salzburg version, tho.