If you are feeling jaded by seeing too many Bohemes, Butterflies, and Carmens, but are unable to cuddle up to late 20th and 21st century works, you should definitely give LA Opera’s production of “The Clemency of Titus” a go. Mozart dashed out this two hour and forty-minute work in 18 days, while also finishing “The Magic Flute.” It was his last opera. He died three months later.
“Titus” is infrequently performed, but filled with beautiful, accessible, and rarely heard melody rendered magnificently by the LA Opera Orchestra, as usual under the baton of James Conlon. Titus was commissioned by for his coronation celebration by Emperor Leopold II. In 1791, with the blood of the French and American revolutions barely dry, the job of Emperor was perhaps more precarious than in previous times. There was a taste amongst the intelligencia for an “Enlightened Despot,” which Roman Emperor Titus had embodied during his short reign (AD 79-81), making him a good subject to reference for Leopold’s coronation. The Libretto had been used 48 times in the past, but only Mozart’s work has survived. Titus’ reign was characterized by his aiding the victims of Vesuvius and by his willingness to forgive. He died only two years into his reign, but no executions were held during that time. One can only wonder if he was atoning for acts he performed earlier under his father’s command: sacking the city of Jerusalem and bringing enslaved Jews back to Rome.
Like many classic operas the story is convoluted and hard to follow. It is even harder to make sense of it from the synopsis in the program. The crux of The story is that Vitellia (Guanqun Yu) yearns to be chosen as empress by Titus whose thoughts are elsewhere. Her jealousy enrages her. Meanwhile, Sesto (Elizabeth DeShong in a trouser role) is besotted with Vitellia. Vitellia uses that to her advantage and convinces Seto he must kill Titus to avenge the emperor’s rejection of her. Seto, who considers himself a great friend of the emperor, is torn by this request, but carries out a conspiracy to kill Titus and gain Vitellia’s approval. Rome literally ignites, though in fact the wrong person has been killed and Titus lives. The scene of the conflagration is so well done the audience erupted in applause when the curtain was raised on Act II revealing the stage smoldering and in tatters.
The LA Opera production is lush. The time is established by projections on billowing scrims of Baroque paintings of ancient Rome. The effect is classic rather than the typical use of projection in modern productions. Unfortunately, Director and Scenery Designer, Thaddeus Strassberger, got carried away by the billowing fabric in the paintings. Great swaths appeared on stage at various times culminating in a red train ¾ the width of the Chandler’s cavernous stage requiring supernumeraries to wield it about as Yu sang her poignant final aria. Try not to be distracted by it.
Sesto is about to be put to death, when Vitellia finally admits her role in the plot. Moments before the scheduled execution Titus forgives them both despite his anger. Such is the way of operatic tales, but recall there is some historical truth. Fortunately, it is easy to put aside one’s literary criticism and bathe in beautiful music conveyed by marvelous voices. Russell Thomas is a powerful figure as Titus. Mezzo Elizabeth DeShong’s rendering of one of the trouser roles is exquisite. Guanqun Yu is born to the role of the scheming woman even when dragging the drapery after her.
One can only marvel once again at what Mozart was able to create in the time it might take another to simply lay out a plan. Inconceivable in a time when few can imagine undertaking such a creative project without the aid of a computer program. Ignore the temptation to draw lessons for the present. Enjoy instead a creation of the past presented in a style that does not attempt to be a modern interpretation.