After the male-centeredness of Stephen Wadsworth's kitschy, over-the-top direction of Iphigenie earlier this season made Susan Graham's character a bit player and third wheel in her own eponymous opera, Graham now finds herself better-highlighted by the revival of Ponnelle's classic "La Clemenza di Tito" production. Her Sesto here is one of the peak assumptions that make operagoing worth it. It would be worth seeing even in a lesser cast, and makes even the superficial sheen and relentlessly airless regularity of Harry Bicket's conducting bearable.
Bicket was terrific in Rodelinda but is the main liability here, playing up only the public side of Mozart's writing and burying the private (ideally, as heard in, say, Levine's most recent Cosi, the two intertwine and inseparably interpenetrate) to the point of straitjacketing the wind solos (here, by Anthony McGill and James Ognibene). But the singers make it work. Tamar Iveri -- though, like most singers, she has issues at one end of Vitellia's great range (here, it's the bottom that's recessed, particularly noticeable in her Act II scena) -- makes excellent dramatic sense. Anke Vondung I found unexciting as Cherubino earlier, but the more serious Annio suits her better and she did well in his aria. (I noted last time that though she's German, Vondung's even-tempered, evenly-produced singing reminds me of an American mezzo's, and she naturally fits alongside Graham.) Ramon Vargas took a bit to warm up but offers a voice of real authority in the title role.
Of course, we know how good Vargas is. Graham I've always liked, but the control and naked feeling she shows in Sesto's "Deh, per questo istante solo" is actually revelatory. Her parts here have been so straightforward that to see her visibly and audibly drowning in Sesto's self-loathing is a shock -- of the best sort.
UPDATE (8PM): The AP wire brings a rave review. Another refined and positive perspective is offered at I Hear Voices, where it seems Rodrigo Maffei Libonati has finally put up a blog.