Review: Ovations for L. A. Opera’s “Clemency of Titus”: Impressive Singing, Stylish New Production, March 2, 2019

The Los Angeles Opera, which had never previously performed Mozart’s “La Clemenza di Tito [The Clemency of Titus]”, presented a sumptious new production of the work, created and staged by New York director Thaddeus Strassberger. Equally brilliant was the musical performance, conducted by Los Angeles Opera music director Maestro James Conlon, with world class performances from the six principal singers

Russell Thomas’ Titus

Florida tenor Russell Thomas was an imposing Titus. Thomas delivered Titus’ great final aria Se all’ impero with dramatic ferocity, conveying through Mozart’s dramatic recitativo accompagnato passages the emperor’s emotional struggle to balance his ideas of atonement and forgiveness with reports of his closest friend’s betrayal.

Thomas has identified Titus as his favorite Mozart role. Originally created by the same tenor for whom Mozart wrote the role of Don Ottavio, a tenor singing Titus, like one singing Don Ottavio, requires sustained vocal control.

Below: Russell Thomas as the Emperor Titus; edited image based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.

Thomas’ Titus benefits also from the power that Thomas displays in the heroic lyric tenor roles of bel canto and Verdian opera [see Review: World’s Best Ever “Roberto Devereux” Performance: Radvanovsky, Thomas, Barton, Frizza – San Francisco Opera, September 8, 2018 and Review: “Don Carlo” – Washington National Opera’s World Class Verdi Singing, March 14, 2018and Review: Meade, Barton, Thomas, Robinson Sing Beautifully in “Norma” – Los Angeles Opera, November 21, 2015

Thomas has added the demanding title role of Verdi’s “Otello” to his repertory and is preparing to sing Wagner’s jugendlicher roles [See Rising Stars: An Interview with Russell Thomas.]

Elizabeth DeShong’s Sesto

The most anticipated moment in any performance of “Clemenza di Tito” is Sesto’s bravura aria Parto, parto whose main section is an enchanting duet between the mezzo-soprano and a virtuoso clarinetist, and which ends with with rapid, repetitive coloratura fireworks. Pennsylvania mezzo-soprano’s Elizabeth DeShong’s performance of Parto, parto, accompanied by the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra clarinetist Stuart Clark, was a sensation greeted with thunderous applause.
c

Below: Elizabeth DeShong as Sesto; edited image based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.

DeShong is one of the most-sought after mezzo-sopranos for the coloratura mezzo roles of Mozart and the Italian bel canto operatic composers, and has made a specialty of the musico roles, in which she plays young men. [See Rising Stars – An Interview with Elizabeth DeShong.]

Guanqun Ju’s Vitellia

Chinese soprano and Operalia winner Guanqun Ju performed the challenging role of Vitellia, employing a lyrically beautiful voice and physical charm in the creation of one of Mozart’s most complex characters. In the opera’s early scenes, a spiteful Vitellia is one of the iconic villainesses in opera. She insists that her lover Sesto conspire to set Rome on fire and murder the Emperor Titus.

Below: Guanqun Ju as Vitellia; edited image based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.

In the final scenes. the genuinely contrite Vitellia unexpectedly receives pardon and redemption from the Emperor whose assassination she had plotted. Ju’s performance proved convincing, and one had sympathy for her character by opera’s end.

Below: Guanqun Yu (left) is Vitellia and Elizabeth DeShong (right) is Sesto; edited image based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.

Janai Brugger’s Servilia

Illinois soprano Janai Brugger, a winner of both Operalia and the National Metropolitan Opera Auditions, won audience sympathy as Sesto’s sister Servilia. Her aria S’altro che lagrime was beautifully sung and affecting in its presentation.

Janai Brugger as Servilia; edited image based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.

Much of Servilia’s music occurs in duets and ensembles, most notably with her lover Annio, the man for whom she has declined the position of Empress of Rome.

Taylor Raven’s Annio

North Carolina mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven sang the musico role of Annio. Impressive in her solo aria Tu fosti tradito, Raven was a sweet-voiced lover in the luxuriously melodic duet with Servilia, Ah perdona al primo.

Below: Taylor Raven as Annio; edited image based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.

I had been favorably impressed with Raven’s Los Angeles Opera debut role as the Sandman [A joyous “Hansel and Gretel” in Doug Fitch’s enchanting production – Los Angeles Opera, December 9, 2018]. The much larger role of Annio allows operatic audiences better to appreciate Raven’s obvious vocal talents.

James Creswell’s Publio

The low voice of the sextet of principal singers was that of Washington State bass James Creswell. Playing the Roman equivalent of a public prosecutor – a frustrating position serving an emperor predisposed to forgive criminal activities – Creswell effectively projected internalized anger.

[Below: James Creswell (center) is Publio; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

In addition to a vocally pleasing solo aria, Creswell was a strong presence in the several ensembles in which Publio takes part.

Maestro James Conlon and the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra and Chorus

Maestro James Conlon’s respect and affection for “Titus”, Mozart’s last operatic commission, was in full evidence. Conlon led the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra and its Chorus (prepared by Montana director Jeremy Frank) in a masterful performance, from the pomp and pageantry of the opera’s rousing overture through the cascades of infectious melodies with which the opera abounds.

Director Thaddeus Strassberger’s New Production

This is the third Thaddeus Strassberger production I have reviewed at the Los Angeles Opera [See Review: Los Angeles Opera’s Glorious “Nabucco” – Domingo, Monastyrska, Conlon Soar in Strassberger’s Imaginative Production – October 14, 2017 and Domingo, Meli, Poplavskaya Shine in Strassberger’s Rousing Revival of Verdi’s “Two Foscari” – Los Angeles, September 15, 2012.]

The new “Titus” production shares with Strassberger’s “Nabucco” and “Foscari” Strassberger’s interests in creating eye-catching images of both ancient and modern historical periods. In both “Nabucco” and “Titus”, Strassberger portrays “ancient times” from the perspective of the society that existed at the time each opera premiered.

[Below: Titus (Russell Thomas) in front of concepualization of Ancient Rome inspired by 18th century paintings; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

Strassberger’s “Nabucco” was presented as an opera being viewed by the Austrian army officers who occupied Milan, Italy. Strassberger’s vision of ancient Rome is informed by the late 18th century European paintings that romanticized the ancient imperial capital.

[Below: Titus (Russell Thomas, front center) visits burned sections of the city of Rome; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

Although I am also an admirer of Sir David McVicar’s production of “Clemenza” created for the Aix-en-Provence Festival and revised for the Lyric Opera of Chicago [Polenzani and DiDonato Triumph as McVicar Illumines “La Clemenza di Tito” – Lyric Opera of Chicago, March 11, 2014], I found the ideas underlying Strassberger’s presentation of the subject matter to be especially persuasive and theatrically compelling.

[Below: the final scene of “La Clemenza di Tito”; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

There was no doubt that the audience gathered at the Los Angeles Music Center’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion was impressed as well. A spontaneous standing ovation at opera’s end was characterized by vociferous applause (including foot-stomping) and a prolonged series of curtain calls.

Mattie Ullrich’s Costumes

California costume designer Mattie Ullrich collaborated with Strassberger on all three of his productions seen at the Los Angeles Opera to date. Ullrich has stated that her imaginative costume designs are far more vibrant and lavish than anything conceived by the ancient Romans, but the resulting mix of costumes creates a spectacle that greatly enhances the operatic experience.

[Below: a costume for the Empress Vitellia (Guanqin Ju); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

Particularly effective are Ullrich’s costumes for the Empress Vitellia, who at one point is costumed in a red robe with a long train managed by Vitellia’s attendants. Also convincing is the masculine attire for the musico roles of Elizabeth DeShong and Taylor Raven.

[Below: Annio (Taylor Raven, right) provides some good advice to his brother-in-law Sesto (Elizabeth DeShong, left); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

Recommendation

For those who appreciate opera, and especially Mozart’s operas in particular, I enthusiastically recommend this cast, conductor and production, even for those who would have to travel a long distance to attend a performance.

Although some may find it unusual to recommend Mozart’s “Clemency of Titus” to persons new to opera, I find the production so accessible, Mozart’s music so beautiful and the musical performance of such high quality, that I recommend it also to all who wish to immerse themselves in a magical evening of Mozart opera.