Monday, 19 June 2017 15:40

Arts Capsule: Opera Theatre sings a song of mercy

Written by 
Laura Wilde and René Barbera in "Titus" Laura Wilde and René Barbera in "Titus" Photo by Ken Howard

If you're a lover of Mozart's operas in general and of La Clemenza di Tito, his final essay in the form, in particular, I'd say there's a lot to like in the Opera Theatre production (retitled Titus in this brand-new English translation), which runs through Saturday the 24th.

If, on the other hand, this is not your favorite Mozart, it's unlikely that this version, for all its virtues, will change your mind.

Mozart interrupted work on one of his genuine masterpieces, The Magic Flute, to write Clemenza di Tito in response to a commission from the Prague National Theatre in 1791. They needed a ceremonial piece to celebrate the coronation of King Leopold II and since Mozart had been trying to get some patronage out of Leopold for the past year, it probably looked like a golden opportunity for the perennially impoverished composer.

The original libretto, by the ever-popular Metastasio, was an obvious choice. It's based on the historical Roman Emperor Titus who, in Metastasio's incarnation, is the Platonic ideal of the benevolent despot, routinely forgiving his enemies and ruling with wisdom and justice. Mozart had the Viennese court poet Mazzolà revise and shorten the script in keeping with then-fashionable notions of what constituted “a true opera” (i.e., one employing elements of both opera buffa and opera seria), along with some very Masonic/Christian notions of forgiveness and repentance.

Cecelia Hall and Laura Wilde
Photo: Ken Howard

The final result makes Titus/Tito look more like a saint than an earthly ruler, so it's fortunate that OTSL has someone with a (ahem) heavenly voice in the title role: tenor René Barbera. If you saw him in OTSL's Elixir of Love in 2014, you already know that he combines a clear, powerful, and pretty much seamless voice with an appealing stage presence. Tito isn't the largest role in the opera, but he has some major arias in the second act as he struggles to maintain his forgiving nature in the face of betrayal by both his friend Sesto and his empress-in-waiting Vitellia. Mr. Barbera's performance could not be better.

Sesto, whose passion for Vitellia moves him to attempt Tito's assassination, is probably the most important part in the opera. Originally written for a castrato, the role is usually played by a woman these days (that whole castrato thing being illegal). Mezzo Cecelia Hall, a former Gerdine Young Artist, beautifully conveys the character's passion for Vitellia and anguish at double-crossing his friend, and does it with a spectacular voice that easily negotiates the role's most florid passages.

Soprano Laura Wilde is the scheming Vitellia, whose lust for Tito's throne (if not for the emperor himself) nearly destroys both herself and everyone else. It's a juicy part, and Ms. Wilde does it full justice, giving her scenes with Ms. Hall real passion.

There are equally impressive performances by mezzo Emily D'Angelo as Sesto's friend Annio (another "pants" role), soprano Monica Dewey as Sesto's sister Servilia, and bass-baritone Matthew Stump as the loyal Publio.

Monica Dewey and Emily D'Angelo
Photo: Ken Howard

Director Stephen Lawless and designer Leslie Travers have moved the action from imperial Rome to Mozart's own time, with all the Romans decked out in black outfits with silver wigs. I'm not sure it adds anything, but it certainly doesn't detract. Mr. Lawless's decision to give his performers lots of comic "business" is another matter. I think it takes away from the more serious ideas that underlie the text and generates inappropriate laughter at what ought to be dramatic moments.

Still, it's all wonderfully sung, with Cary John Franklin's chorus doing their usual splendid job. Opera Theatre Music Director Stephen Lord, who is making his farewell appearance with the company, conducts with his customary authority and sensitivity, and St. Louis Symphony clarinetist Scott Andrews plays the virtuoso passages Mozart wrote for his friend Anton Stadler with real panache.

Opera Theatre's Titus might not change anyone's mind, but maybe it doesn't need to. If you love great singing then, to quote Mr. Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet III, 1), "'tis enough, 'twill serve."