The LA Opera’s dedication to bringing operatic splendor to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage continues with the Los Angeles debut of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “The Clemency of Titus,” which marked one of the final works by the iconic Austrian composer (along with “The Magic Flute” and the Clarinet Concerto), who died only three months following its September 6th, 1791 premiere in Prague. The LA Opera’s production of the opera-seria masterpiece is lovingly conducted by James Conlon, expertly directed by Thaddeus Strassberger, and will play on select dates through March 24th.
In the fascinating nexus between art and life, “The Clemency of Titus” was commissioned by the Bohemian Estates to herald the coronation of the new King of Bohemia, Leopold II, who was already the Holy Roman Emperor and the King of Hungary. The Italian opera, which legend has it was written by Mozart in an astounding 18 days, was part of a preemptive sociopolitical effort to curry favor from the Bohemian nobility, who were perhaps more inclined to perceive Leopold II as a direct reflection of the opera’s honorably merciful Titus. This aim to engender peace through symbolism owes much to the libretto’s premise, originally conceived by Pietro Metastasio in 1734 and edited by Caterino Mazzolà, who streamlined and pared down the opera to two acts, accentuating the import of Rome’s benevolent and judicious Emperor Titus, whose heralded altruism is more or less accurate when he ruled between 79 and 81 AD.
This inspired-by-true-events character is remarkable because he appeals to reason and rationality, in lieu of emotion, to parry greedy and envy-fueled attempts to bring down his empire. Forgiveness is more powerful than retribution, and the story of Titus clearly elucidates this enlightened view of humanity, where one leads as the “better person” and attributes grievances, even ones as legitimate as treason, to misunderstandings. Notwithstanding the error of foolhardiness, one can make the cogent argument that this goes a long way in forging trustful relations.
As with most opera narratives, the urge to ruin is paradoxically motivated by love, albeit the kind that is manipulated for nefarious means. This is true for Vitellia (Guanqun Yu), the daughter of a previous emperor who was executed by Titus’ less forgiving father. She has her eyes set on Titus (Russell Thomas) in order to reclaim her royal line and become his empress. But with her frustrations and scorn getting the best of her, she aims for corporeal revenge instead, exploiting Titus’ beloved friend, Sesto (Elizabeth DeShong), a smitten young nobleman, to do her evil bidding.
Complicating matters is that Sesto’s sister, Servilia (Janai Brugger), has become the object of Titus’ romantic interest, despite being in love with Sesto’s friend, Annio (Taylor Raven). And while Servilia politely declines Titus (who is graciously accepting), citing her love for Annio, the situation spirals out of control, as it is taken out of context by the insecure Vitellia, whose masterminding involving Sesto adds a stimulating uncertainty. Ultimately, after a little misdirection, a guilt-laden fallout – officially presided over by Titus and to a lesser extent by his by-the-book right-hand-man commander Publio (James Creswell) — holds the destiny of the contrite Sesto in a precarious balance.
As with any top-notch LA Opera production, audience members are welcomed into a lush setting rife with history and a stakes-filled story that beckons their absolute attention. The gorgeous scenic design can be attributed to Thaddeus Strassberger, who also directs “The Clemency of Titus” with smooth pacing, thereby maximizing the meaning of each new development. Observers are wowed as they experience Rome in a burnished gold and bronze framing the proscenium, later gasp when they see the city in tattered ruins, and then smile upon the flower-festooned progressive empire that shuns barbarity in favor of charity.
Mattie Ullrich’s costumes are equally attractive — from togas, tunics, capes, and breastplates in all their eye-catching grandeur, to gold-leafed headdresses, as well as flowing gowns with the most delightfully ornate patterns, and specifically Vitellia’s majestically crimson long-trained ensemble in Act II. Furthermore, the lighting design by JAX Messenger is sumptuous, brightly shining upon the characters and their motivations until calamity strikes and Rome is ablaze, which is conveyed with great ominousness via bright orange and red hues. And, Greg Emetaz’s detailed projections effectively contribute to the opera’s changing moods and the immersive depth of the stage.
Maestro James Conlon, who, by his own admission had until now never conducted “The Clemency of Titus,” flawlessly captures Mozart’s spirit and orchestrations, insofar that this is the closest anyone will ever get to the 18th-century phenom. Attendees are taken for a historic ride once the celebratory overture resounds, intermixed with hints of distress, giving way to recitatives, arias, duets, and trios that build upon one another, characterized by harmony and internal conflict. Conlon, like the true helmsman he is, urges a flurry of important emotions out of his orchestra, which thrillingly enfold the drama.
The six principal performers not only enthrall with their powerful vocals, but are terrific at using their facial expressions to emote their turbulent agitation at having to face the many dilemmas that befall them. They are led by tenor Russell Thomas, whose acting is just as moving as his robust timbre. Titus is humble in his disposition and leadership, and would rather help the indigent than be lionized with gifts. Not to mention, when faced with Sesto’s punishment, it’s apparent that he would rather win loyalty with love as opposed to fear, and Thomas gets this across with a passionate and vigorous intensity in “Se all’impero.” Titus’ Thomas is a tour de force of steadfast conviction, who admirably fights off heartache and the impulse to avenge, earning the audience’s utter respect.
Guanqun Yu’s Vitellia is wickedly desirous of the power that Titus can give her and uses Sesto like a pawn until her own guilt creeps up into her conscience. Certainly, at first, her entreatment that Sesto trust her without hesitation in “Deh, se piacer mi vuoi” sounds flawlessly pure in its vocal intent, dissembling the siren of wrongdoing. Yet, when Vitellia is viscerally affected by the consequences of her selfish actions, she bemoans with apologetic resignation – a delicate balance that the soprano Yu achieves with her evocative coloratura.
Vitellia’s main counterpart in the opera, Sesto, is excellently portrayed with palpable love-struck commitment and an overwrought culpability by a bearded Elizabeth DeShong (the role was originally written for a castrato). DeShong’s Sesto is heartbreaking and sympathetic as one who is enslaved by a strong need to please Vitellia (“Parto, parto, ma tu, ben mio”), while juggling second thoughts regarding sedition, and the shame in threatening Titus’ trust (“Deh, per questo istante solo”). In the latter case, especially, mezzo-soprano DeShong is magnificent at communicating the throes of desperation with her heartfelt and full-toned pleadings.
Taylor Raven, who has deservedly been in several LA Opera productions lately, gives a sincere performance as Annio (who is also depicted en travesti). Annio is deeply in love with Servilia and their duet of “Ah, perdona al primo affetto” sweetly ties the two as “intertwined souls.” Annio is, moreover, loyal to Sesto, and during “Tu fosti tradito,” Raven’s Annio is profoundly genuine in beseeching Titus to forgive their mutual misguided friend. Likewise, soprano Janai Brugger is beautifully authentic as the virtuous Servilia, who is dressed in exquisite blue and purple lace, and appeals with mesmerizing poignancy when endearingly advising Vitellia with the wisdom that she do more for Sesto than only cry for him (S’altro che lagrime”).
Last, but not least, is James Creswell, whose bass-sturdied Publio is appropriately intimidating in his declamations, bolstering the suspense of the opera. He and the others are joined by a spectacular chorus, whose bone-chilling and reverent voices ring out at the close of Acts I and II, respectively.
LA Opera’s undertaking of Mozart’s “The Clemency of Titus” has been produced with a meticulous attention to its backstory, both in exploring the real-life legacy of the beneficent Titus and how such an account was used as a manipulative tool to subdue a potentially insurgent Bohemian populace (in light of the American and French Revolutions which transpired around the same timeframe). Just as interesting is how this opera fits into the last few months of Mozart’s life, which was essentially harried as he completed a short list of objectives (with notable similarities to one another) before his untimely passing at age 35. The cast of “The Clemency of Titus,” plus Conlon and Strassberger, among others, have revitalized a significant part of Mozart’s history for a contemporary audience — underscoring themes of control, conscience, resolve, and love-driven forgiveness – while inspiring epiphanies in its rapt audience.
For more information about Mozart’s “The Clemency of Titus” at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, please visit laopera.org