Saturday night at the Metropolitan Opera was a great night for Mozart. You can go to the opera house, or the concert hall, for many a moon and not hear Mozart so well served. On the stage was La clemenza di Tito, his opera of 1791 (his final year).
There are six singers in this opera (as in Così fan tutte, another Mozart opera, as it happens). What are the odds they will all be good? They were all very good. There was no weak link in the chain.
You want the orchestra to be first-rate. It was. You want the same for the chorus. And it was.
Also, you want a production that is absolutely fitting. Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s, which premiered in 1984, is. To me, it looks like Tito sounds.
Not least—and maybe most—you want a superb conductor. Lothar Koenigs, a German, filled the bill. If Google is right, I have reviewed him just once before, in the 2015–16 Met season. He substituted for James Levine in Lulu, the Berg opera. I said that Koenigs conducted “with sure understanding and skill.”
He did on Saturday night as well. The entire evening had Mozartean mechanics and spirit.
Sometimes Tito is imperial, sometimes personal. Koenigs and his forces reflected all that.
The music was neither too heavy nor too light. It was bold and incisive; it was also tender and poignant. Sometimes Tito is imperial, sometimes personal. Koenigs and his forces reflected all that. Tempos, phrasing, and dynamics were well-nigh inarguable.
I thought of Neville Marriner and Levine himself. Their approach to Mozart was respectful—but never fearful, never dainty, never smacking of “period.” Neither were they mindlessly explosive or crude. They found the “sweet spot.” So did Koenigs.
Foremost among the singers, perhaps, was Joyce DiDonato, the American mezzo, who sang the part of Sesto. Though the cast was well balanced, Tito threatened to become The Joyce DiDonato Show. She was in top form, with a beautiful voice, secure technique, and dramatic flair.
In 2014, I interviewed Christa Ludwig, the legendary German mezzo, who praised two singers of today. One was Anja Harteros, the German soprano; the other was DiDonato.
In the opera’s final pages, I thought of a famous phrase from poetry: “fearful symmetry.” This was symmetry, but not fearful.
Another mezzo onstage was Emily D’Angelo, an Italian Canadian. She portrayed Annio, and she hardly put a foot wrong. Elza van den Heever, the South African soprano, was Vitellia. She was now and then slightly shrill, but this went with the character: Vitellia was a shrew, the villainess of the piece. Van den Heever was always a compelling presence. Another soprano, Ying Fang, sang Servilia. This young woman from China furthered her reputation for pure, intelligent Mozart.
There are two men in this opera (in addition to the two female singers who portray men). One was Christian Van Horn, an American bass-baritone, who sang Publio. He was glowing and virile—and yet properly measured. The title role, Tito, was taken by Matthew Polenzani, the American tenor, who is a veteran Mozartean. He was every inch a king, or emperor. And his voice has a kindness, which can suggest the “clemency” of Tito.
What else is there to say? I could gush on, but you get the picture. In the opera’s final pages, I thought of a famous phrase from poetry: “fearful symmetry.” This was symmetry, but not fearful. Rather, it was magnificent and Mozartean. Everything was in balance, composed—right.
Play it again.