The Lyric Opera, that commissioned Scottish production designer Sir David McVicar, to create a new production of Dvorak’s “Rusalka”, also requested that he revise his production of Mozart’s opera seria “La Clemenza di Tito” for presentation on the Lyric stage.
Adding to the luster of the evening was the special attention to the work given by the conductor, Sir Andrew Davis, Lyric Opera’s music director.
[Below: Sir David McVicar, edited image of a publicity photograph.]
McVicar’s sets and staging was originally designed for the 2011 Aix-en-Provence (France) Festival, as a co-production with the Teatre du Capitole de Toulouse and the Opera de Marseille.
The production has a classic simplicity – a staircase that was periodically moved in and out of the main stage sight lines, and a back wall that replicated the courtyard wall of the Archbishop’s Palace in Aix-en-Provence, where McVicar’s “La Clemenza” production was first performed.
Refocusing the Drama Within “Clemenza”
“Clemenza” has the reputation of being the least accessible and least performed of the “Big Seven” Mozart operas.
Even though it was being composed at the same time Mozart was involved in the creative process for “Die Zauberflöte [The Magic Flute]”, and is filled with sophisticated, beautiful music, it lacks the obvious, immediate appeal of the other operas of Mozart’s maturity.
[Below: Matthew Polenzani as Tito (the Roman Emperor Titus); edited image of a copyrighted Todd Rosenberg photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]
Its creation is a consequence of meeting Mozart’s personal needs. Ill and deeply in debt, Mozart accepted – for his family’s survival – a commission that required the use of a 17th century operatic libretto designed for a style of opera that Mozart (and his older contemporary Gluck) had abandoned.
“Clemenza” is built upon the opera seria tradition that concentrates plot exposition in recitative and expresses emotion in arias. Although Mozart a decade earlier had created “Idomeneo”, itself utilizing opera seria features, Mozart’s inspired treatment of its Greek myth theme assures that “Idomeneo” will be occasionally revived by most major opera companies.
[Below: Sesto (Joyce DiDonato) is vexed that he has set Rome afire; edited image of a copyrighted Todd Rosenberg photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]
In comparison, “Clemenza’s” storyline seems less theatrical. Vitellia wants to be the Emperor Tito’s’ empress. Tito’s best friend Sesto loves Vitellia, so Vitellia commands Sesto (knowing that he loves her) to kill Titus because Tito planned to ask Servilia, rather than Vitellia, to be his wife.
But Servilia loves Sesto’s other friend, Annio, and they both discourage Tito, who then determines to propose to Vitellia. But Sesto has already attempted Tito’s assassination, and, having been caught, is required by Roman law to be executed. Vitellia intercedes with Tito, who pardons all who plotted his death.
[Below: Vitellia (Amanda Majeski, left) receives a passionate kiss from Sesto (Joyce DiDonato, right); edited image of a copyrighted Todd Rosenberg photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago. ]
If one considers “Clemenza” to be another of Mozart’s “relationship” stories, Vitellia’s and Sesto’s behaviors seem excessively distraught and illogical to modern day audiences. But McVicar argues persuasively that we should regard “Clemenza” as a story based on the dynastic struggles of imperial Roman families.
Although McVicar does not refer to the contemporary HBO television series Game of Thrones, 21st century audiences steeped in the wars of the royal families of Westeros will understand the logic of Vitellia, whose own father was recently deposed by Tito.
[Below: Servilia (Emily Birsan, left), having withdrawn herself as consideration for the role of Empress, concentrates on marrying her lover, Annio (Cecelia Hall, right); edited image of a copyrighted Todd Rosenberg photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]
Vitellia’s motivation – to disrupt any marriage (and the family’s property that could be secured by it) – can be understood. She wants to be empress and to prevent the emperor from choosing anyone else for that position.
Even fiercer dynastic struggles than those conceived in the Westeros fantasy world, is the historically based PBS series I, Claudius, relating the viciousness of the imperial Roman power struggles occurring a half century or so earlier than Titus’s brief rule.
[Below: Christian Van Horn as Publio, leader of the Praetorian Guards; edited image of a copyrighted Todd Rosenberg photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]
Those who can accept the premises of these popular series should have no problem with the vengeful and manipulative Vitellia, nor of a hotheaded Sesto, so enamored of Vitellia that he would kill the emperor to further her ambition for vengeance.
Jenny Tirimani’s costume schemes suggest the styles of the court of the Emperor Napoleon I, although by temperament, Titus would be more closely associated with one of the “enlightened monarchs” who were contemporary to the ill-fated King Louis XVI of France.
Mozart’s music provides McVicar’s theatrical genius with abundant opportunities to engage the audience. The imperial march that introduces the Emperor and his Praetorian Guards provides the opportunity for some lavishly choreographed martial arts swordplay.
[Below: Tito (Matthew Polenzani, left) demands to know of Sesto (Joyce DiDonato, right) the reasons for his betrayal;edited image of a copyrighted Todd Rosenberg photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]
The Musical Performance
If a person is a newcomer to opera, and is either unfamiliar or – so far – unimpressed with other Mozart operas, I would recommend caution, although a novice to opera might find the many musical high points, such as the great arias of DiDonato’s Sesto and Polenzani’s Tito, to be appealing.
But for those persons, such as opera season subscribers, and other persons who know they like opera, especially those who appreciate Mozart’s works, this is a masterpiece that rewards those who invest the time to get to know it. David McVicar very effectively guides us through the drama and musicality inherent in the opera.
[Below: Sesto (Joyce DiDonato, center) has been captured by the Praetorian Guard; edited image of a copyrighted Todd Rosenberg photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]
The principals are, without exception, world class singers. Matthew Polenzani in the title role and Joyce DiDonato as Sesto both made brilliant impressions on the Chicago audience, and were rewarded with ovations both within the performance and at opera’s end.
Polenzani is one of the great contemporary exemplars of the lyric tenor voice, and such recent efforts as Mozart’s Belmonte [see Cornelius Meister’s Admirable “Abduction”: San Francisco Opera – October 11, 2009] and Offenbach’s Hoffmann [see Matthew Polenzani Triumphs in Pelly’s Take on “Tales of Hoffmann” – San Francisco Opera, June 5, 2013] are treasured moments for those who have experienced them.
[ Below: Amanda Majeski as Vitellia; edited image, based on a copyrighted Todd Rosenberg photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]
Joyce DiDonato’s Sesto was an extraordinary portrait from this great artist, who deserves her reputation as an authentic American operatic superstar [See Rossini Royalty: DiDonato, Brownlee, Pizzolato and Barbera in Curran’s Staging of “Donna Del Lago” – Santa Fe Opera, July 26, 2013 and Joyce DiDonato, Nicole Cabell Sing Beautifully in Bellini’s Bel Canto “Capulets and Montagues” – San Francisco Opera, September 29, 2012 and Joyce DiDonato is Vocally and Dramatically Convincing in Donizetti’s “Maria Stuarda” – Houston Grand Opera, April 27, 2012.]
The vocal performances of Polenzani and DiDonato, the conducting of Sir Anthony Davis, and the concept directing of Sir David McVicar (Marie Lambert staging the revival) make even the highest priced tickets a bargain. But the rest of the cast was of the highest quality as well.
[Below: Tito (Matthew Polenzani, front right, in red cloak) grants clemency to the conspirators; edited image of a copyrighted Todd Rosenberg photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]
Amanda Majeski, one of whose early successes at Lyric I chronicled [see Festival Casting for Lyric Opera’s “Nozze di Figaro” – Chicago, March 9, 2010] handled the vocal fireworks and wicked range (combining a mezzo’s low notes and a soprano’s high register) notably.
Cecelia Hall and Emily Birsan were the lovers Annio and Servilia, with Christian Van Horn (Polenzani’s co-star in the “Hoffmann” performance cited above) as Publio.
I recommend this production as an excellent introduction to an infrequently performed Mozart masterpiece, particularly for those opera-goers who appreciate baroque operas, or the operas of Mozart, or who are seeking world class operatic performances.