OPERA NEWS - La Clemenza di Tito
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In Review > North America

La Clemenza di Tito

LA Opera

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Thaddeus Strassberger's production of Clemenza di Tito at LA Opera
Cory Weaver/LA Opera
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Russell Thomas in the title role of Clemenza di Tito
Cory Weaver/LA Opera
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Janai Brugger, LA Opera's Servilia
Cory Weaver/LA Opera

LA CLEMENZA DI TITO retains few of the defining features of opera seria. Gone are the forbidding sequences of da capo arias; in their place is a richly varied array of ensembles, accompanied recitatives, choruses and arias that demand breathtaking vocal virtuosity. One element of opera seria remains, however: Clemenza is very serious. The opera consistently delivers fulsome bromides on loyalty and the need for mercy. The challenge of making all this credible to modern audiences was met with spectacularly imaginative flair by stage director Thaddeus Strassberger, in LA Opera’s first production of Mozart’s last opera (seen March 2).

Strassberger loves to fill every nook and cranny of the stage with action. In Clemenza this impression was strengthened by the set, designed by Strassberger to suggest the confined perspective stage of Mozart’s time. Projected on its wings and backdrop were images of ancient Rome from the Baroque to the Romantic period that represented Rome as the source of Europe’s law and order, its humane philosophy, and its hideous violence. The clothes depicted in these images reappeared in Mattie Ulrich’s riotously colorful costumes for the chorus and multiple supernumeraries. This made for a beguilingly theatrical display but also provided the singers with a congenial context for their work. They were not obliged to provide deep motivations for characters who do not necessarily have them; instead, they were able to retain the cardboard-like rigidity of their morality play-like figures, credibly highlighting the artificial nature of the action. This gave rise to frequent laughter from the audience—some if it unintended, perhaps—but it humanized what we saw and happily brought us closer to it.

As with most productions at LA Opera in the last several seasons, this Clemenza was distinguished by the wall-to-wall quality of its singing, down to the smallest roles. Elizabeth DeShong took pride of place as Sesto. Completely unrecognizable in her beard and dingy armor, DeShong sang with the range, expressiveness and musical precision that captured the hysterical extremes of her character. Much of Sesto’s music lies in the cellars of De Shong’s mezzo-soprano, where the intensely deep contralto tones she commands contrasted startlingly with the dazzling coloratura runs at the top of her range.

Guanqun Yu’s provided a potent mix of sweetness and venom that held the audiences rapt over Vitellia’s two long arias. We did not hear enough of Janai Brugger and Taylor Raven who sang with soul-stirring warmth in the relatively brief roles of Servilia and Annio, respectively.

One would have welcomed more music for Tito as well. Tenor Russell Thomas, who has previously sung the emperor at Salzburg, provided a mature, beautifully wrought performance, emphasizing especially the struggle Tito experiences before he can allow clemency to guide his final judgement. At some points, Thomas’s Tito seemed to struggle with his actual voice, as if the voice itself was preventing him from following his better instincts. James Creswell was an appropriately venal Publius.

But ultimately, La Clemenza di Tito is an ensemble opera, a designation fully realized in James Conlon’s rich contribution as conductor. This was the first time Conlon had led the opera, but there was no hesitation or uncertainty in his performance—or in anyone else’s. The size and sonority of the orchestra, the impeccably balanced trios and quartets of the principals, and the disciplined exuberance of the chorus, which ranged from utter fear to jubilant celebration, all seemed to pre-echo the rise of grand opera. At the same time, orchestral details were nurtured masterfully; Stuart Clark delivered the two famous obbligato, for clarinet and basset horn, with a full sense of their moving poetry. —Simon Williams 

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