Mozart’s “Clemency of Titus” at LA Opera
by Bondo Wyszpolski
If we open the door a little to allow in every last child, there are 17 operas by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, of which seven actually get to sit at the table of the operatic repertoire. Of these seven brothers and sisters, “The Clemency of Titus” is the least performed. LA Opera has presented all of the others and some of them (“The Magic Flute,” “The Marriage of Figaro,” etc.) more than once. It’s taken 30 seasons, but they’ve now gotten around to “Titus,” and they’ve done so in an eye-catching production that’s running through March 24 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in the Music Center.
Perhaps James Conlon was the person who most looked forward to opening night. He was excited to be conducting “Titus” for the first time in his long career, and therefore has been especially attentive to it, which shows. One should, by all means, attend his pre-concert talk, held one hour before each performance.
“The Clemency of Titus” (or “La Clemenza di Tito”) is both simplistic and complicated (I’ll explain) with an interesting backstory.
Short of cash, in August of 1791 Mozart put “The Magic Flute” aside and accepted a commission to write an opera that would celebrate the coronation in Prague of Leopold II as King of Bohemia. He worked with librettist Caterino Mazzolà, who took up a warhorse of a libretto written years years earlier, in 1734, by Pietro Metastasio, a libretto that had already been set to music by at least 40 composers. Mazzolà trimmed its three acts to two and presumably embellished it so that it would more accurately reflect the occasion: to praise a new ruler while at the same time presenting an apt example of a just and benevolent king. The opera bends over a little too much to emphasize this, but clearly the notion was not to be too subtle.
The real Titus (Titus Flavius Vespasianus) became the emperor of Rome in 79 A.D., a date most of us associate with the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius that buried Pompeii. Titus seems to have been a mixed bag, perhaps harsh or ruthless in his youth who later amended and atoned for his earlier misdeeds. Not that he had much time for the latter. He died at the age of 42 after ruling for just two years. He may have been poisoned by his brother Domitian, which would have been par for the course when we think of Nero and Caligula.
“The Clemency of Titus” is a six-character opera seria, and like all of Mozart’s operas it contains an assortment of disguises and/or deceptions, mistaken identity and intrigue. Not unlike Shakespeare, for that matter. On top of this, the various characters pair off or play off of one another, so that when I say the story is both simplistic and complicated this is what I mean.
At the end of the opera, when the curtain goes up and the cast steps forward, Titus (Russell Thomas) receives the loudest round of applause, seconded by Sesto (Elizabeth DeShong), but the most compelling character, and perhaps the only one fully realized, is Vitellia (Guanqun Yu). Vitellia is the daughter of the previous king, deposed by the father of Titus, and she now feels that she deserves to sit on the throne. Not surprisingly, she’s quite the schemer. Is Titus aware that she’s a calculating woman?
Also, while he may turn out to be the epitome of a benevolent ruler (playing up to Leopold, of course), Titus can’t decide which woman he’d like to have as his queen. At first he may be leaning towards Vitellia, but opts for Berenice whom he then sends away, and turns his eye towards Servilia (Janai Brugger), the sister of his good pal Sesto but the beloved of Sesto’s friend Annio (Taylor Raven). After Sesto tells Annio, “You better kiss your girlfriend goodbye,” Annio and Servilia have a touching scene together of farewell, and we get the pleasure of “Ah perdona al primo affecto,” their lovers’ lament.
Servilia, however, is not servile, and she tells Tito that while she’ll do as he commands, her heart belongs to Annio. A less benevolent ruler would simply dismiss this, “Well, that’s too bad,” but Titus praises her forthrightness and doesn’t press the issue. He then decides upon or returns to his original choice of having Vilellia as his queen.
Meanwhile, thinking she’s been passed over yet again, Vitellia conspires to kill Titus, using Sesto to do the dirty work. Although he’s supposedly a dear friend of Titus, Sesto is head-over-heels infatuated with Vitellia. And so he becomes a pawn in this royal game of political chess. I don’t think we’re ever sure if Vitellia actually has true feelings for anyone other than herself, although she’ll be contrite when we get to the third scene of act two.
Meanwhile, Sesto is pulled between loyalty and lust, and in fact could have been the truly tragic figure of this opera, except that would have stolen some of the thunder from the magnanimity, and clemency, of Titus. After all, while Leopold is never onstage, the spotlight never really leaves him.
Here’s the main restriction. Sesto, and also Annio, are trouser roles, meaning that these are male parts sung by females. That’s due largely, if not entirely, to the fact that the roles were written for castrati, that is, boys with a kind of arrested development. There’s nothing amiss with a good trouser role, but Elizabeth DeShong is taxed with performing as a lovesick and simpering suitor who unfortunately comes across visually more as an adolescent boy than as a man who would be a serious contender in the high-stakes game of love. One may secretly long for a countertenor who might at least look the part. Perhaps Sesto’s plaintive vocals make up for it, for her singing is certainly first-class, but if she physically resembled a man torn apart by his emotions our eyes would be more forgiving.
Eventually, after the not unexpected crosswires of communication, Sesto goes on a rampage, sets the Roman capitol on fire, and kills (or thinks he kills) Titus. The first act ends with some excellent, impassioned singing, and also spectacularly with a Wagnerian fire. The conflagration would be perfect for the finale of “Götterdämmerung.”
After intermission, while we’ve been chatting out in the lobby, the capitol has burned to the ground and is still smoldering. The curtain goes up, the audience is stunned by the beauty of the set, and doesn’t fail to show their appreciation. We owe this breaktaking splendor to director and scenery designer Thaddeus Strassberger, who also wrote the supertitles.
It doesn’t take long for Sesto to be detained, and although he thought he’d killed Titus it was actually a disguised accomplice, Lentulus, through whom Sesto had run his sword–and not fatally, as we learn (a trick of fate or a subtle plot twist that later makes any pardoning a bit easier).
There’s a fair amount of high-end singing in this opera, with half of its cast being sopranos. With no baritone (Titus is a tenor, Sesto a mezzo), the person who anchors the work with a most-welcomed gravitas is James Crewell, a bass who sings the role of Publio, Captain of the Praetorian Guard.
The courtly drama becomes a courtroom drama, although both the juror and the judge is just one person, Titus, and Russell Thomas is somewhat reminiscent of the actor Laurence Fishburne as he ponders whether to send Sesto to the lions or to let him live. When Sesto is brought in, Titus says to him, “Let us find a way together to pardon your crime.”
Sesto may express some regret and remorse, but he is, after all, an arsonist who burned down the palace and a would-be regicide to boot. Does he deserve clemency? Imagine someone, anyone, who’s just reduced the White House to ashes and attempted to assassinate the President.
Nonetheless, Titus carefully deliberates what he should do and, to emphasize the eventual benevolence of the emperor, Mozart and Mazzolà give him plenty of airtime. In opera, as we know, matters can be drawn out (for example, no one ever dies without singing an aria or two on their deathbed), and while this may be the apex of the opera we may ask if it realistically rings true. Wouldn’t Titus be furious, a raging bull of sheer anger? But because Leopold is in the wings, that is to say his box seat at the opera house, the scene edges on the obsequious and bootlicking while simultaneously stressing the notion of unblemished judiciousness.
In the end, yes, Titus is all-forgiving. The opera certainly is not mistitled.
Titus repeatedly lauds honesty, people who freely speak their mind, although we can only guess what befalls Vitellia after she speaks hers. Presumably she won’t be ascending the throne, but we do see her at the end as a contrite figure, and one who has lost her fiery spark. A panther is always more impressive than a pussy cat, but at least she’s run through the gamut of emotions, and that’s why I find her, or rather Guanqun Yu, the most engaging of the six performers.
“The Clemency of Tito is an original production of LA Opera, which means you didn’t see it last year in New York or San Francisco. The overture is worthy of the coronation of an emperor, and the entire creative team seems to have taken that as their cue, so that “Titus” comes wrapped in a sumptuousness usually reserved for a first-class production of “Turandot” or “Aïda.”
Costume designer Mattie Ullrich apparently set her gaze on the Victorian Romantics, Lawrence Alma-Tadema without a doubt, and maybe others like Thomas Couture or Jéan-Léon Gerôme. The result is a lush, enhanced costume drama that supplements an opera that might well exceed one’s expectations, especially in that Mozart may have composed it in just 18 days (although presumably handing off the secco recitatives to his pupil, Franz Xaver Süssmayr).
It was a frenzy of writing, rehearsing, and God knows what else. “Titus” premiered on Sept. 6 and “The Magic Flute” on Sept. 30. At the same time, Mozart was writing his “Requiem,” which he didn’t finish, dying on Dec. 5, 1791, at the age of 35. He left us after a bonfire of creativity and the world has never, and never will, get over it.
The Clemency of Titus (La Clemenza di Tito) is onstage at the Dorothy Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown Los Angeles in the Music Center. Performances, Sunday, March 10, at 2 p.m.; Wednesday, March 13, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, March 16, at 7:30 p.m.; and Sunday, March 24, at 2 p.m. In Italian with English subtitles. Tickets as low as $16. Call (213) 972-8001 or go to LAOpera.org. ER