Mozart’s last opera, composed to celebrate the coronation of the Hapsburg Emperor Leopold II as King of Bohemia, has been enjoying an impressive revival of late. Regarded for much of the 20th century as an unrewarding exercise in formality, written by the composer more to keep financially afloat than to make an urgent artistic statement, its strengths have been showcased in a recent series of major recordings, both audio only and DVD, revealing that the work is a multi-faceted, highly complex, and extraordinarily beautiful testimony to the composer’s genius, including an astonishing coup-de-theatre ending to the first act, with soloists and chorus singing quietly in something totally antithetical to what we expect from Mozartian finales, and a heart-breaking love scene towards the opera’s end that contains a plea for of nobility and compassion matching the Count’s at the end of Figaro.
It is more than conventional Mozartian beauty that is on display here. It is an astonishing ability to use opera as a subtle ceremonial tool (propaganda, if you will, but propaganda at a very high level). In this case, the audience would have been familiar with the libretto, the story and the moral (the highest good a ruler can strive towards is to put the good of the people above his or her own personal happiness). In order to make this more than a mechanical playing out of a familiar story, Mozart transformed the characters’ emotional lives by having them fall under the spell of his magic music.
I think that an initial understanding of how rich an opera Clemenza is may be more easily gained by experiencing one of the excellent recently-released DVDs, those conducted by James Levine or Nikolaus Harnoncourt, or perhaps best with the Drottningholm production conducted by Arnold Östman, which accomplishes the task in the most gentle and civilized way. Jacob’s new CD recording is far more musically volatile and controversial than any of these (with the mild-mannered exception of the Östman), though completely in line with the conductor’s past Mozartian successes for Harmonia Mundi (Così and Marriage of Figaro).
In fact, Jacobs’ performance is a tremendous success, bringing out the revolutionary Mozart as much as it does the evolutionary. Working with a fabulous cast including Bernarda Fink as an ideal Sesto, Mark Padmore as a dazzling Tito, Marie-Claude Chappuis and Sunhae Im as a delectably adorable young couple, and Alexandrina Pendatchanska as a majestically imperious and totally human Servilia, Jacobs takes no prisoners with this performance.
The sound, especially in the SACD format, is rich and warm, explosively dynamic when needed, presenting a vivid and appropriately large soundstage. The sumptuous packaging includes full libretto and extensive program notes including Jacobs’ own “Seven misconceptions about La Clemenza di Tito, Or how Mozart saved Vitellia’s life.”
— Laurence Vittes