Editor’s Note: For more insights on this performance, please read “LA Opera Presents THE CLEMENCY OF TITUS Preview – Star Soprano Janai Brugger Interview”
The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion is a colossal structure that coils its way through a complex of cultural arts building and lords over it with imposing stylized columns and a glass façade. The Academy Awards took place there for three decades, and glamor is still in order. On the opening night of The Clemency of Titus at the Los Angeles Opera, attendees posed in front of the LA Opera banner in styles melding classic cuts and lines with hip accents. The lavish staircase of the entrance was a blur of fur, diamonds, sleek bodysuits, spiked heels, bohemian fringes, and leather jackets.
Many experienced subscribers and devotees of the art form were undoubtedly drawn to the prospect of seeing a rarely staged opera among the Mozartian canon. Premiering in 1791, The Clemency of Titus is a tale inspired by Roman history. As the program notes indicated, the noblewoman Vitellia plots to assassinate Tito, the Emperor of Rome who is beloved by his people. Tito forgives all of his enemies regardless of everyone’s expectations, thus affirming the opera’s theme of redemption. The opera enjoyed enormous success while Mozart still lived, but after his death three months after its composition, it was only revived in the 20th century. Considering that the belated United States premiere only took place in the fifties, it was high time that Californian audiences take pleasure in the extraordinary work for the first time.
Perhaps ironically, considering its lack of popularity, this reviewer believes that the production would have been ideal to convert uninitiated opera-goers of the merits of the art form. Judging from the enthusiastic chatter between acts, those who were disgruntled and unimpressed participants of the violence and abstraction of modern productions, which in this writer’s view, often superimpose their concept on a traditional piece, were delighted by the direction, sets, and costumes which evoked the luxury and decadence of the Roman Empire. There were no struggles between contemporary tastes for violence and eroticism with the perfect harmony of Mozart’s music; the violence, intrigue, and passions governing the piece were tastefully implied, codified, and represented rather than blandly imitated. Supertitles rendered the performance readily understandable to all attendees.
Just as in illustrations of beloved fairy-tales that are engraved with great craftsmanship rather than given a clever twist, the first scene opened with a satisfying hedonism expected of both ancient Rome and the sensual experience of opera. A languorous female figure lied supine on a velveteen sofa, the marbled interiors and columns complemented by first a backdrop inspired by 19th-century Alma-Tadema paintings of antiquity and then a trio of mist-enshrouded women bathing. An audible collective gasp resounded throughout the auditorium as The burning of Rome, artistically composed by lighting designer JAX Messenger and projection designer Greg Emetaz, was rendered even more climactic by the eerily hushed cries of the remarkable choir, led by Jeremy Frank, at the end of the first act. When the curtain rose after intermission, the audience audibly gasped, overcome by the sight of three-dimensional layers of ruins on a massive scale, still smoldering from the heat of imaginary embers.
The spectacle did not register as hollow pageantry, supporting throughout the ethical and aesthetic subtext of the libretto and music, which at times was ablaze and impassioned in accordance with the characters’ motivations, and sometimes blissful and sublime. For example, the 25-foot long train devised by costume designer Mattie Ullrich for Vitellia, the daughter of the deposed Emperor Vitellio played masterfully by Guanqun Yu, reflected the character’s moral dilemma. In the first scene, we met her as a siren, her white robe doing little to restrain her seductive appeal to her lover, Sesto, as she revealed her legs through a slit at the thigh. However, in the second half of the opera, her plot to kill Emperor Titus has backfired. The monarch asks for her hand in marriage and she must undergo bridal preparations while wrestling with her guilt. Her remorse ennobles her from a superficial schemer to a woman with humanity, and so her robes are majestic in ermine and highlighted by burnished red lighting. At the same time, she is trapped, and her movements are weighed down by her train and controlled by the servants who silently lift it around as she paces back and forth. In her aria Non più di fiori, Yu evinced the complexity of her dramatic and musical material. Far from a unidimensional demon infatuated by power and the promise of glory, Yu seemed to reveal a dormant virtue hidden within her character’s being. In this interpretation, her supremely difficult vocal ornamentation transcended musical pyrotechnics and brought to mind spasms of the inner furies assailing her conscience. The mournful music of the clarinet, which has a similar expressive and tonal quality to the human voice, interspersed her declamations, as if she were engaging in a dialogue with her own soul.
La Clemenza di Tito presents the culmination of Mozart’s preoccupation with the themes of mercy and pardon, which run through many of his operatic works, in characters that are richly layered. Emperor Titus’ struggles to reconcile his idealistic view of humanity with the stark reality of betrayal and disloyalty leads to self-doubt and a wavering resolve. This reviewer believed that Russell Thomas did not always appear sensitive to the way his consonant accompaniment gave way to harmonically disrupted moments during moments of turmoil and indecision, but his manner of powerfully muscling his way through his arias and their fioratura did not threaten the bounds of verisimilitude. His voice was rich, assured and in strong command in keeping with his regal bearing, and the audience was suitably impressed judging from the ovation he received. Sesto, incarnated by Elizabeth DeShong, brilliantly captured the fierce duality of her character with the aid of a deliciously rounded and powerful tone and a great dramatic understanding that allowed her to be totally believable as an impulsive young man. Her dichotomous nature, dominated by slavish desire for Vitellia in “Parto, ma tu ben mio", and a vindicating loyalty to Tito in “Deh per questo istante”, were clearly delineated. Bass James Creswell as Publio was the voice of a more restrictive mode of leadership that served as a foil to Titus. Here was a man that judged well and accurately, without affording a second chance to offenders of the political order. Janai Brugger’s Servilia charmed the public and the characters on stage with whom she interacted, moving with a determinate grace in her robes of blue and purple. She served as the lyrical and womanly voice of divine reason as she sang to Vitellia on the importance of following words of repentance with concrete action. Although her duet with her lover Annio (Ah, perdona al primo affetto) was dramatically endearing, this writer thinks that Taylor Raven as Annio was not able to match her beauty of tone, although he cut a plucky figure on stage.
The ending affirmed the message of clemency, with all the members of the cast and chorus exulting in the moral message in a sublime musical moment as the people of Rome gathered together with pink garlands. The curtain call inspired vigorous cries of “bravi” to the cast and creative team -- such was the collective and rapturous appreciation of a piece that combined Mozart’s sublime poetry and vocal athletics, virtuosity and power, epic themes and their intimate expression.
While The Clemency of Titus run has ended, the Los Angeles Opera produces many other productions of excellent quality. In a world of increasing depersonalization and automation, the craftsmanship and individual artistry apparent in this piece of music and theater -- as well as the many other productions the LA Opera puts on -- is a gift that is desperately needed.
Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Conductor: JAMES CONLON
Director / Set Designer: Thaddeus Strassberger
Costumes: Mattie Ullrich
Lighting: JAX Messenger
Projections Design: Greg Emetaz
Acting Chorus Master: Jeremy Frank
Cast: RUSSELL THOMAS, GUANQUN YU, ELIZABETH DESHONG, JANAI BRUGGER, TAYLOR RAVEN, JAMES CRESWELL.
For information and tickets visit the Los Angeles Opera’s website or call 213.972.8001.
Photos: Cory Weaver