Mozart was pithy when entering works into his Catalogue (used from K 449 onwards). One big exception is La Clemenza di Tito where he praised his librettist, Caterino Mazzola, for updating the marmoreal melodrama into "true opera". From his infancy, Mozart loved opera seria; it is so evident in La Clemenza di Tito. The old accusation that it is the product of haste and fatigue is felonious. K 621's toe-hold on the repertoire is growing. Operabase lists 89 performances of 17 productions in 16 different cities in the past two years. More importantly, it continues to bedazzle the Australian Knappertsbusch Association, one and all.
Nikolaus Harnoncourt, God-Emperor of the Dayaks, is a protean figure indeed. Many a recording is made to reassure his people that the Wild Man of Borneo is alive and well and living in Vienna. In other recordings, Harnoncourt transmutes masterpieces into muesli. And on occasions when the stars are in alignment and his daemon is repressed, he can be the most insightful conductor in the current guild.
What of his March 1993 recording of La Clemenza di Tito? Does it compel one to don a loincloth and feast on brains? Should one spit out oats and raisins in response? Or is it a contender in a congested field where all recordings are eclipsed by the Davis `76?
There is much to like here. A large hall was used as a recording venue which the engineers have mastered by the barest of margins; one is always conscious of its cavernous acoustic.
Harnoncourt is in fine form here. There are no postcards from Borneo. Tempos and the overall pacing are insightful. He refuses to `hogwood-ise' the orchestra of the Zurich Opera which plays with finesse, power and tonal beauty. There is also plenty of vibrato from the singers: Harnoncourt is no ideologue.
To the soloists. In a comparative sense, I have never heard Ann Murray sing so beautifully; her `Deh per questo istante solo' for instance is highly listenable though I am no fan of her lower register: bovine associations come to mind. This was the last recording made by Lucia Popp before her death (brain cancer claimed her six months after this recording). There is no hint of `Susannah' in drapery; she vividly brings Vitellia to life in all her machinations: what a `Non più di fiori'. In contrast to Murray it is a feast to hear her lower register. Ruth Ziesak does not efface memories of Edith Mathis as Servilia - the latter is unbeatable in S'altro che lagrime - but she is fine enough all the same. Much the same could be said of Delores Ziegler as Annio. Polgar's Publius is Sejanus writ large: stupendous and minatory.
The drawback here is Phillip Langridge as Tito. Weak in projection and blustery of tone, he is unlistenable. Endure - if you can - his opening bars in Del più sublime soglio - it could almost be the voice-over in the old cartoon series of Space Ghost.
To summarise, this performance of K 621 is gutsy, dramatic and tender by turns. The finales of both Acts - Mozart at white heat - are vividly characterised by a fine cast.
As things stand, I am inclined to award the Bronze Medal to this performance, with the Silver going to Bohm and Sir Colin Davis, as ever, claiming the gold