La Clemenza di Tito - OAE/Gardner - Barbican, 26 July 2008
The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment immediately sounded a lot better on this outing than they do at their native South Bank, confirming my suspicion that however questionable the Barbican acoustics might be, the Royal Festival Hall's are (despite the refurb) still worse.
The OAE were immaculately prepared - perhaps a repeat performance this weekend at the Lincoln Center , marking Gardner's New York debut, justified a little extra rehearsal time. They were on thrilling form, playing as if their lives depended on it.
Even though the daily ENO grind is turning Gardner prematurely grey, his floppy-fringed cuteness endures. If only that was enough to move orchestras. I've found his ENO efforts patchy - too often pallid and uninspired - but he surprised me tonight, working up a sweat on the podium and a fire on the stage.
Tito seems to have built up a chorus of apologists recently, all ready to proclaim that it's unjustifiably sidelined, one of Mozart's finest, etc. But it's not. Unlike Die Zauberflöte, so eminently resistant to even the most cack-handed of treatments, when Tito's given a second-rate performance, it sounds like a second-rate opera. This is the first time I've heard it dispatched with the sort of passion and commitment that do it justice.
Of course the soloists played a huge part in this, none more so than Alice Coote, who gave so much more than just singing. In the central role of Sesto, agonisingly torn between self-destructive love for the selfish, ambitious Vitellia and loyalty to the Emperor Tito, she inhabited her part fearlessly and totally. This was a concert performance, but nothing except the music stand gave a hint that this was anything less than Coote would deliver on the opera house stage. She looked utterly spent as she sank back into her plastic chair at the end of each aria.
Toby Spence as Tito was dressed for St Moritz in January with his white polo neck and thick velvet jacket. But this was London in July, with British (i.e. rubbish) aircon. When he whipped the jacket off and sat astride his chair (to the apparent surprise of the other performers) as he started to interrogate Coote aria-style, I wondered if it was a spot of heat exhaustion. But no - dramatic licence (and very effective) - he put it straight back on again afterwards.
There was a range to his performance that suggested experiment as much as expressive breadth. Not all of it came off - in particular I felt he stressed Tito's benevolence at the expense of his authority - but it was clear he has an ever-growing range of vocal tools, not to mention the ability to keep an audience on the edge of their seats.
Next to the white-hot intensity of these two, Hillevi Martinpelto's studied and refined portrayal of Vitellia inevitably paled a little. Vitellia's mean streak needed a harder edge. But she sang beautifully, every note appropriately shaded, the voice still lustrous and almost girlish. It was 'Mozart singing' in the classic sense, and a pleasure to listen too.
Matthew Rose's Publio seemed rather lugubrious in comparison to the spirited performances elsewhere, but there's something of that in the character anyway, and his sonorous bass was impressively mobile in the faster passages.
The Clare College Cambridge Choir were enthusiastic and crisply drilled - a textbook rendition, if not an especially sensitive one, to nitpick.
This concert was announced relatively late, and the Proms always provide stiff competition at this time of year. Even so, it surprised me, given the casting, that it was far from sold out - the whole balcony closed, and empty seats here and there elsewhere. The Barbican sometimes offers up some rather dodgy programming in its annual summer Mozart festival, but this was an overwhelming exception.
Here's one she made earlier: Hillevi Martinpelto sings Deh seh piacer mi vuoi for Charles Mackerras: