This season’s Mozart offering from the Lyric Opera of Chicago is La Clemenza di Tito, a work whose place in the Mozartean and general opera repertoire has always been shaky. Despite the fact that by the end of the year, he would die at the age of just 35, 1791 was extraordinarily productive for Mozart, the final of several almost unfathomably impressive years for the composer. In that year, he produced his Clarinet Concerto, Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), and his Requiem, among several other works that are now casually classified as the superlative product of genius. It’s easy to understand, then, how a work can slip through the cracks and become relatively neglected, and La Clemenza di Tito has suffered that fate, though it’s worth remembering that Cosi fan Tutte was equally neglected and now is considered equal to anything else the composer did.
It’s fairly commonplace to say that La Clemenza di Tito (The Clemency of Titus) is an opera that gets overshadowed by Mozart’s masterpieces, but there are very good reasons why this work is less-often performed. Its glaring flaw is that it is an opera seria, an opera format which was out of fashion even by the time Mozart wrote it. Opera seria tend to have rather static plotlines, drawn from fairly banal mythical or classical stories, dull expository stretches of recitative punctuated with arias, duets, trios, and the occasional chorus. It’s a format whose popularity was achieved in the Baroque era, when opera was just starting out, more like an oratorio with a plotline, though it certainly allows for great music, as it does here. Mozart’s music for La Clemenza di Tito is never less than sublime (no surprise); but taken for long stretches, it can be quite dull, as if we’re consuming too large a portion and we become over-sated, not a problem with his more vigorous operas.
The cast that Lyric has assembled for the six principle roles in La Clemenza have very strong ties to the company; five of them are alumni or currently members of the company’s Ryan Opera Center, and the sixth, mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, is currently one of the most in-demand singers in the world. Tenor Matthew Polenzani, a Chicago-area native and Ryan Center alum, sings the title role, and it’s a remarkably study of unselfishness. Though he finally gets his big aria toward the end, the benevolent Roman Emperor Tito, who doesn’t mind the fact that he’s jilted by two possible brides, and his best friend Sesto (DiDonato, in a trouser role) has tried to kill him, is mostly stuck providing exposition and singing the dull recitatives. However, the chance to return to Lyric in a Mozart role was apparently too good to turn up, and Polenzani’s performance was never less than fully committed, and his voiced sailed through the recitatives. It is hard to imagine somebody performing a similar repertoire than him at the moment.
Despite the star power of Polenzani and DiDonato, the breakout star here seemed to me to be soprano Amanda Majeski, whose performance as the opera’s femme fatale, Vitella, was a confident display of virtuosity, with an impressive top range and an especially powerful voice, though she struggled with some of the lower register, though this is understandable particularly in her final aria, in which she’s asked to go absurdly low. Cecila Hall, another trouser-clad mezzo, and Emily Birsan, as the first woman who asks out of becoming empress (a theme in this opera is how nobody seems to like to be powerful and privileged, and I guess we’re supposed to feel sorry for them, such as Tito, who spends most of his time lamenting how the commoners have it so good compared to the emperor,) are quite impressive, though Birsan was only intermittently brilliant.
Christian Van Horn, in the bass role of the pragmatist Publio, was quite effective even though his character is the only one in the cast who, inconveniently to the storyline, lives in the real world; he reminds Tito it may not be prudent for him to pardon people who keep trying to kill him. As for DiDonato, it’s easy to forget that she’s a mezzo, so full is her range. Her Sesto is as compelling a dramatic study as much as it is a musical success. I would recommend to anyone wanting to see her in material that’s worthy of her, and in what could be her last trip to Chicago for a while, to see her here.
This is the second consecutive production at Lyric directed by Sir David McVicar and conducted by Sir Andrew Davis; with such big guns at the helm, Lyric patrons are finding themselves spoiled, though McVicar’s contribution was not all it could be. In this production, as was not the case for Rusalka, which he also directed, McVicar also designed the sets, and it was a thoroughly underwhelming display. The set, and I do not use the word “sets” because essentially one setting was used, with different backdrops moved forward, backward, and sideways on and off stage, appeared to look like odds and ends that had been thrown together to suggest a hybrid between the ancient setting and an updating of the production to around the time it was written. McVicar must get some credit for a full dramatic commitment on the part of the singers, which injects some life into the fairly lifeless plot. Polenzani's Caesar is dressed in 1790’s royal court getup and DiDonato’s Sesto is made up like a young Beethoven.
There is a singular stage effect, the fire that Sesto and company sets to the palace in an attempt to assassinate Tito, which is suggested merely by smoke and a red glowing effect in the background, which must be credited to lighting director Jennifer Tipton. Davis’s direction was mostly excellent, which is to be expected, especially in Mozart, his specialty, though the playing could have used a bit more lightness. Davis made some cuts, and the opera still seemed too long, with many numbers containing extraneous and redundant elements. La Clemenza di Tito is not flawless, but it’s got enough inspiration to make this a great experience. Perhaps it’s just easier and sufficient to say that it’s unmistakably Mozart.
La Clemenza di Tito, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago, March 11, 14, 17, 20 at 7:30 PM, March 23 matinee at 2:00 PM.