Emperor Didn't Strike Back

A fine “Clemenza” presented at Mostly Mozart.

By: DAVID SHENGOLD | On August 4 at the Rose Theater — which, at least from its central seats, offered wonderful acoustics — the Mostly Mozart Festival presented its namesake's penultimate opera, 1791's “La Clemenza di Tito.” The Met had given us a very fine “Clemenza” under Harry Bicket in May, but it was salutary to hear this wonderful music played by a “historically informed performance” ensemble. The performance was highly enjoyable — though not fully deserving of the vociferous standing ovations it was given.


Edward Gardner was making his New York debut. The young (mid-30s) conductor has been much ballyhooed in the British musical press, his name attached to high-profile projects like the Kate Royal debut CD — for my money the most disingratiating major classical vocal debut since that of England's last supposed “must hear,” Jonathan Lemalu. Gardner can boast feline good looks, a good stock of self-effacing looks for curtain calls, and important, product-riven “conductor hair” — the full Hugh Grant package.


So it came as a very pleasant surprise to hear how well he actually conducted “Clemenza” — once he got past an overture marked by attention-getting ritardandi. It was a fluid, well-conceived performance, with truly lovely playing from the Orchestra of the Enlightenment and notably good integration of instrumental, choral, and solo vocal forces. It was puzzling that, after treating us to long stretches of the recit, which Mozart didn't write, Gardner cut the brief lines just before the finale in which Vitellia explains exactly why she set her lover Sesto to the task of killing his best friend, the Emperor Titus — her motive, love for Titus (“Tito”), is part of what prompts the emperor's forgiveness of all concerned.


Tito here was Toby Spence, the boyishly handsome blond English tenor whose appearances seem to leave many of my British colleagues weak in the knees. His days as an operatic Dorian Gray (in looks, I mean) are creeping to a close, at least without stage make-up. But he's still a highly compelling sight and a very detailed singing actor willing to take dramatic risks even in a concert staging — his clement emperor proved a highly intriguing portrayal of what is sometimes a one-dimensional character.


Spence is an “English tenor” in the sense that he makes a pure, choirboy kind of sound that has the virtue of clean musicality and the demerit of a limited range of tone color; Frank Lopardo, who really should still be on the Met roster, showed in 2005 how much timbral variety Tito's music can support. But if one is open to his somewhat monochrome approach, Spence gives about as good as it gets — excellent pitch, good dynamics, and near-flawless coloratura.


The odd failing in one so evidently intelligent and so committed to line-by-line textual response was an extremely Anglo-Saxon version of Italian vowels — detectable from his very first utterance, “Basta,” nearly rhyming with the British pronunciation of “pasta.” He's in a long tradition of some superb British tenors, including Richard Lewis, truly appalling in this regard, and Stuart Burrows, dispensing in honeyed tones “very personal Italian.” But given that Spence probably has many years of fine singing in front of him, this seems a fault worth remedying.


Good news — he will be headlining City Opera's forthcoming “Rake's Progress,” one of his specialties.


The truly outstanding impersonation here was Alice Coote's intense, individually acted Sesto. She sometimes pushed the envelope in intensity a little far as to facial expression, but such absolute commitment to the material was engrossing to see. Coote's mezzo was wonderfully pliant and rich — the launch of “Se al volto mai ti senti” was like a dream — and the fioriture were thrilling and expressive. Coote is always a welcome guest in New York.


Hillevi Martinpelto, looking not inaptly a bit like a prettier Tammy Faye Bakker in a classic-lined red gown, made a pretty good Vitellia — like most exponents of this wickedly difficult role starting out better than she ended up. She shows some vocal blowsiness these days, though the essential tonal shine has held up well. She made a fun “bad girl,” almost a reluctant one — unlike such full-out Joan Collins treatments as Alexandrina Pendtachanska and Tamar Iveri have offered — but her quite capable performance made me realize it has been two decades since I heard any truly excellent Vitellias in live performances, namely Elizabeth Connell and Carol Vaness.


This concert was rehearsed in London, so one could understand why mainly UK-based soloists were used; but one could also see this as reflective of Mostly Mozart's tendency to hire Europeans for presumed “cachet” when any number of equivalent or superior American singers go unheard. In the past few years, various second-tier Brits have been flown in to do a concert aria or two. Why?


This year's program featured rather much of Christiane Oelze, a worthily musical singer, but hardly outstanding.


My main complaint here centered on Sarah Tynan, the Servilia, who sported a lovely blue strapless dress but — though the crowd seemed to buy her wares — offered a hard, unpleasant little instrument with no float and an inapposite vibrato. I have never heard a less pleasing performance of this beautiful role, and can only wonder at Tynan being signed up to do Strauss's Sophie at Houston Grand Opera — a bastion of developing young American singers which seems to be headed down the all-too-familiar “British is better” garden path these days.


Dublin's Fiona Murphy, attired as Mercedes Ruehl in “Married to the Mob,” made a capable, dark-accented Annio — though numerous American lyric mezzos could have furnished similar quality. Bass Matthew Rose was in all respects a worthy Publio — the voice of dull reason in this passionate piece, but he underpins several ensembles.


David Shengold (shengold@yahoo.com) writes about opera for many venues.