Sunday, March 3, 2019

Exceptional voices far outdo Ancient Rome's gold in L.A. Opera's The Clemency of Titus

Russell Thomas as Titus
Sung with exceptional form and beauty and served with an incredibly sumptuous eye-full, it turned out not to be so easy looking at Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito through 21st century ideas of Ancient Rome. It’s been a long wait for L.A. Opera’s audiences but this is how the company’s new production of Mozart’s final commissioned opera felt on Saturday’s opening night.

Despite being billed as The Clemency of Titus, the production uses the all-Italian libretto by Caterino Mazzolà, based on an earlier libretto by Pietro Metastasio. The translated title might be a way of making the work feel more accessible for an English-speaking audience. And even though its English surtitles lend an air of modern language usage that occasions the odd comic response, director and set designer Thaddeus Strassberger acknowledges its original Ancient Rome setting, albeit deceiving the eye with sprinklings of neo-classical detail.

An impressive portal in an elegant architecture of freely employed classical elements and enough gold leaf detailing to draw oohs and aahs frames Strassberger’s saturated ancient exoticism. Lit up in a big-budget cocktail of colourful costume excess by Mattie Ullrich, JAX Messenger’s deliciously moody lighting and Greg Emetaz’s projections of neo-classical art, the many stage tableaux indeed strike powerfully. But lavishing the audience with an indulgent concoction of the ancient past doesn’t make the work any more accessible - and the longer in front of it, the more false it felt.

James Creswell as Publio and Russell Thomas as Titus
Supposedly whipped up in a mere 18 days, Clemenza was commissioned to celebrate the coronation of Emperor Leopold II of Prague. Of course, showing regal duty and imperial character in a glowing light fit the order. So, obliging with the story of a benevolent ruler (Titus) who exonerates his best friend (Sesto) from an assassination attempt on his life, and the woman (Vitellia) who put him up to it, certainly demonstrates loyalty, compassion and backbone. Titus’ short rule (79-81 AD) was viewed favourably by historians of the period with one such account by Suetonius noting the remark, "Friends, I have lost a day.”, should he have not provided help to anyone in a single day. Leopold must’ve been honoured with the comparison, especially with such radiant music bestowed on him. Strassberger, I thought, had lost an opportunity. Most opera can successfully wriggle from its defined setting and this, for 2019, is one of them.

Still, for all the spectacle, what outshone most were the voices and music, all of which breathed utterly freely and satisfyingly. Just what was achieved with textural vibrancy and attentively punctuated phrasing in the overture, conductor James Conlon maintained over its two acts. The L.A. Opera Orchestra heeded the baton master excellently with faultless playing that exposed the beauty of the score and supported the singers well.

Elizabeth DeShong as Sesto and Taylor Raven as Annio
Exuding the stature of a noble warrior and outfitted in golden breastplate, tenor Russell Thomas was convincing in authority, virtuosity, disturbance and compassion as Titus. Full power when needed was there, as was the sensitivity of pianissimos. But Thomas’s most striking weapons were the voice’s quick flight through a range of colour, swirling and gargling notes in the most natural way and planting intent on every syllable of text.

Mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong was stellar in the pants (that fit perfectly) role of Sesto. Matching exhilarating expressive vocal variety to every change in circumstance, DeShong’s passionate and troubled Sesto deservedly earned the mercy granted by Titus. In love with Vitellia and putty in her hands, DeShong’s confidently placed ornamentations added believable bite to Sesto’s thoughts and declarations. In agreeing to murder Titus, the words “I will be what you want me to be” became heartfelt and near-tragic in DeShong’s grasp as part of one of the opera’s many gorgeous arias, “Parto, parto, ma tu, ben mio”. With DeShong, Stuart Clark’s dashing, willowy basset horn accompaniment shared the spotlight.

As Vitellia, there was no holding back the vengeance with potent soprano Guanqun Yu in her solid opening duet with DeShong’s Sesto, “Come ti piace, imponi”. But in seeing Sesto accept punishment for his actions, Vitellia’s remorse breaks through and Yu captures it in class in Act 2’s “Non più di fiori” to further consoling basset horn playing, spoiled, however, by maidens handling her trailing red veil.

Guanqun Yu as Vitellia
Alongside the meat of the plot runs a romance that twists the drama between Vitellia’s sister Servilia and Sesto’s friend Annio. Succulent soprano Janai Brugger and strident mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven brought beautiful voice and credibility to their respective parts and James Creswell’s old oaky-voiced Publio made a commanding mark.

The rich mix of duets and trios that stud the score were sung with focus and effectiveness, recitatives drove interest and the L.A. Opera Chorus beefed up the soundscape impressively. With just five more performances remaining, it’s definitely worth going and sinking yourself into the extravagance but, like me, you might be far more blown away by the voices and music than all its gold.

The Clemency of Titus 
L.A. Opera
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, L.A. Music Centre
Until 24th March 2019

Production Photos: Cory Weaver

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