La Clemenza di Tito

Michael Van Duzer Reviews - Theater
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The general opinion is that Mozart’s penultimate opera, La Clemenza di Tito (The Clemency of Titus) is a rush job (purportedly written in three weeks) from an ailing composer featuring a creaky and old-fashioned libretto. But that composer is Mozart. A Mozart returning to the moribund art of opera seria after changing the face of vocal music forever with his trio of operatic masterpieces written with Lorenzo da Ponte. Still, productions of the opera are scarce.

Luckily for us, LA Opera feels strongly enough about the stage-worthiness of Clemenza that they have invested in the creation of a new production of the opera. And they have gathered a group of artists, both on stage and behind the scenes, whose talent and shared vision result in a stunning and truly memorable production.

Director/Scenery Designer Thaddeus Strassberger makes his mark by taking the drama seriously and creating an opulently beautiful world on which the complicated action can play out. Strassberger’s sets and projections filter Ancient Rome through the lens of a Baroque painter. The various settings are contained by a series of frames and include some intricate forced perspective. A nod should be given to both the formality of the opera seria style and the fact that our visual impressions of Ancient Rome come from paintings and Hollywood.

This visual choice also offers an entry point for modern audiences to the somewhat rigid and prescribed world of Titus (Russell Thomas) and his court. Vitellia (Guanqun Yu) is the daughter of a deposed Emporer and feels entitled to the throne. So, she determines to marry Titus. But Titus announces his plan to marry Servilia (Janai Brugger). Enraged, Vitellia demands that her lover Sesto (Elizabeth DeShong) betray Titus and kill him during the confusion surrounding a fire he must also set.

Neither of them knows that Annio (Taylor Raven) has gone to Titus with the news that he and Servilia are in love. And that Titus has released Servilia and plans to marry Vitellia after all. But opera seria isn’t much for irony, so Sesto continues with Vitellia’s horrific plan. In the confusion of the fire, Sesto kills the wrong man and a very much alive Titus is devastated by his friend’s treachery. He plans to execute Sesto, who freely admits his guilt. But Vitellia breaks down and confesses that she masterminded the plot. Summoning up his titular clemency, Titus pardons the traitors and, presumably, starts the search for a less impulsive wife.

Thomas has the presence and the patience to make us feel for Titus. His elegantly crafted tenor is in complete command of Mozart’s music, including the vocal fireworks that finally appear in his rage aria. DeShong’s rich and authoritative mezzo easily conquers every musical hurdle, and her “Parto, parto” deservedly stops the show. This is a stylish Mozartean who understands that control and communication are the keys to mastering this type of role. Yu skillfully navigates Vitellia’s difficult coloratura and looks gorgeous in Mattie Ullrich’s dazzling costumes. But there are moments that could use a bit more emotional fire.

Brugger brings a silken sheen to her persuasive soprano and acts her role with a fetching tenderness. Raven reveals another secure and accomplished mezzo-soprano and wears her whiskers with pride. The always reliable James Cresswell bring stateliness and substantial basso power to his Publio, a stand-in for the voice of the people.

Certainly, none of these soloists could achieve their collective power without James Conlon’s precise and carefully calibrated reading of the score. The fact that no moment in this nearly three-hour opera flags or seems expendable is due, in no small part, to Conlon’s skill and thorough understanding of Mozart’s musical foundation.

Strassberger depends on his talented collaborators, the afore-mentioned Ullrich on costumes, JAX Messenger’s moody lighting, and Greg Emetaz’s smart projection design to create ravishing stage pictures that blend Caravaggio with Cecil B. DeMille’s biblical epics. And, while Strassberger takes care not to wink at the audience, two of the more ludicrous moments in the plot did provoke a few giggles.

Opening night generated the usual standing ovation, but the cheers were loud, honest, and deserved. Still, I heard two distinct boos when the director and design team took the stage. Opera creates fans as passionate and opinionated as any sport. So even the best new production the company has done in ages will find its detractors. But I urge you to see for yourself just how wrong those dissenting voices are.

Dorothy Chandler Pavilion    March 2 – 24, 2019    www.laopera.org