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 Recording of the Week, Mozart's La clemenza di Tito from Yannick Nézet-Séguin

After a two-year hiatus, Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s Mozart opera project on Deutsche Grammophon returns this month with an electrifying account of the composer’s final opera, La clemenza di Tito, written at top speed in the last year of his life to celebrate the coronation of Emperor Leopold II. Taken from concert-performances in Baden-Baden last summer, the entire score crackles with energy and commitment from all concerned – after a slightly lacklustre Nozze di Figaro a couple of years ago, the dramatic temperature is back to white-hot, and the women in particular are as fine as any I’ve heard on record.

Joyce DiDonatoLatvian soprano Marina Rebeka (recently a spectacular Norma at the Metropolitan Opera) sweeps all before her as the venomous Vitellia, establishing the character’s volatility and mercurial shifts of mood in the long opening recitative: even before her first aria, we get a full picture of the woman’s vulnerability, sarcasm, sexual allure and unstable ego. She’s completely in command of the role’s notoriously wide compass (listen to her seamless descent from a top B to low G in her first aria), digging out low notes with Lady Macbeth-like viciousness and wringing every ounce of nuance from the text – each repetition of ‘alletta’, for instance, in that opening aria is coloured differently, and her big Act Two set-piece ‘Non piu di fiori’ is as dramatic as any bel canto mad scene. As the man she manipulates for her own political ends, Joyce DiDonato is on blazing form: her voice has acquired significantly more ‘blade’ since her Donna Elvira on this series a few years ago, without losing any of its trademark agility (the volleys of coloratura triplets in ‘Parto, parto’ are jaw-dropping, as is the obbligato from principal clarinet Romain Guyot) and on this showing she’d make a formidable Vitellia herself, though she recently told me that she loves the character of Sesto so much that portraying his nemesis would feel like an act of betrayal!

As Sesto’s confidant Annio, the superb young Irish mezzo Tara Erraught makes her first major appearance on CD here, and on this showing she needs to be snapped up for a solo recording contract post-haste: a fine Sesto herself (she sang the role under Kirill Petrenko whilst still a Young Artist at Munich) her bright, androgynous mezzo contrasts wonderfully with DiDonato’s more dramatic instrument, and with Regula Mühlemann’s sweet, silvery Servilia. Her duets which each singer are real highlights – it says much that Sesto and Annio’s minute-long ode to friendship is one of the tracks I’ve returned to the most on the recording.

Rolando VillazonRolando Villazón is his idiosyncratic self as the titular Emperor, and whilst his contribution isn’t on the same exalted level as those of the women, the part plays to his strengths more than Ferrando, Ottavio and Belmonte did: Tito is a role which can take a heavier voice than the fresh-faced romantics of Così fan tutte, Don Giovanni and Entführung, and the slight signs of wear-and-tear on the instrument reinforce the impression that this is a careworn and deeply conflicted man of passion rather than a one-dimensional paragon. If he doesn’t achieve the stillness and introspective lyricism of a Philip Langridge or a Mark Padmore (who sang the role on the last major recording of the opera, for René Jacobs) in his opening aria ‘Del piu sublime soglio’, he’s entirely compelling in the long recitative where he agonises over the signing of Sesto’s death-warrant, and his ‘Se l’impero’ (in which the emperor reflects that he would rather abdicate than retain his authority at the expense of his humanity) conveys a sense of vulnerability which suggests that this Tito’s eponymous clemency may yet prove to be his Achilles heel.

Nézet-Séguin & Co. are currently back in Baden-Baden recording Die Zauberflöte, with Villazón dropping down to baritone territory for the role of Papageno and the Lohengrin de nos jours Klaus Florian Vogt coming on board to sing Tamino – it’s an intriguing prospect, and if the affinity which Nézet-Séguin shows for Mozart’s mystical late sound-world on this recording is anything to go by, it should be well worth hearing.

Mozart: La clemenza di Tito

Rolando Villazón, Marina Rebeka, Joyce DiDonato, Tara Erraught, Regula Mühlemann, Adam Plachetka; Chamber Orchestra of Europe, RIAS Kammerchor, Yannick Nézet-Séguin

Available Formats: 2 CDs, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC