Every opera lover’s dream is to attend a performance where passion and artistic commitment become the dominating factors in an opera production. Such was the case on April 14, at the second performance of A. Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito* staged by The U of AZ’s Opera Theater. Stage Director Charles Roe and Musical Director and Conductor Thomas Cockrell teamed up to give audiences an emotionally fulfilling rendition of the composer’s last opera, classified as opera seria.
But it was not an easy task. The opera, composed in 1791, has never been held in esteem as other Mozart’s operas have. One only needs to mention The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and Cosi Fan Tutte, his three masterpieces he composed with librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, to many opera enthusiasts and Tito would not even come up in the discussion. Besides that, the opera’s librettist Caterino Mazzola could never challenge the beautiful poetry of da Ponte’s work.
This season, The Metropolitan Opera revived Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s 1984 production hoping the work would attract new converts. Even though the HD Telecast in November of 2012 presented a strong cast buoyed by Harry Bicket’s beautifully thoughtful conducting, Fred Cohn’s straightforward review in Opera News of the opera clearly demonstrated what many opera critics think about Clemenza and what obstacles opera companies face when they decide to mount the work. Cohn did not mince words.
“La Clemenza di Tito is unlikely to qualify as anyone’s favorite opera. Compared to the da Ponte masterpieces that came before it, Tito seems distant and archaic, weighed down by conventions of opera seria. Caterino Mazzola’s libretto is almost perverse in its avoidance of sustained dramatic conflict. Moreover, the work loses musical interest during it substantial stretches of recitativo secco.”
But it’s the element of surprise that often brings the magic of opera to the fore. To be honest, I never expected to witness such a warm and loving rendition of an opera that critics consider cold and aloof. How Roe and Cockrell were able to create that magic is known only to them. However, the fact that they were able to work with the singers and musicians over a long period played a big part in their success.
And the long rehearsal period also gave set designer Sally Day and costumer designer Christopher Allen time to coordinate their contrasting ideas and meld them into a cohesive look.
Day’s set took the entire width of the stage, featuring tall, round non-tapered columns in the center and finished off the sides with pathways capped by Roman rounded arches. A centered platform gave the performers a space in which to execute their arias in a typical classical stance which dramatically conveyed the opera’s themes of thwarted love, seething revenge and ultimately Tito’s magnanimous act of forgiveness for all who had wronged him.
The successful outcome of this dramatic expression was accomplished through Roe’s subtle direction. His light touch allowed the cast to perform as if all their actions and reactions in the opera were of their own invention. A directorial devise which has been mostly forsaken by many of today’s self-centered opera directors. What a pleasure it was to be able to sit back, relax and enjoy our afternoon at the opera.
And a big part of that enjoyment were Allen’s detailed 18th-Century costumes. Because the opera has only six roles, Allen was able to not only dutifully dress the singers in costumes that were appropriate for the time period, but tailor them in color and design to fit each performer’s character.
The men, Publio and Annio, were in plain, long knee-length coats with white stockings, but the beneficent emperor Tito wore a lush velvet red coat, setting him apart from his subjects. Sesto is a trouser role, and mezzo-soprano Mackenzie Romriell looked beautifully mannish in her light-blue ensemble.
The detailed design and colors for Vitellia and Servilia’s courtly dresses were a real standout. For Servilia, Allan outfitted her in a blue-green dress with side panels over a delicate bodice in light brown. Vitellia looked quite handsome in a black gown with gray trim. The metal panniers under her skirt, not only made the sides of the dress stand out, but gave soprano Jenina Gallaway a grand opportunity for some amusing theatrics.
Cockrell and Roe did not consider the work’s weighty opera seria conventions a liability. They encouraged the cast to relax and let the opera’s many recitativi flow naturally into Mozart’s beautifully well-crafted arias.
Humberto Borboa Beltrán produced lovely warm tones and beautiful recitative in expressing Tito’s dilemma whether to forgive Sesto for his betrayal or punish him. Jenina Gallaway put Vitellia’s jumbled emotional conflicts center stage using her beautiful soprano to express the lady’s quest for attention. Gallaway’s interpretation and David Becker’s stunning basset horn generated a rich, harmonious sound, turning Vitellia’s second act aria, “Non piu di fiori” into a duet under Cockrell’s expert guidance. Romriell’s Sesto combined the mezzo’s natural interpretive abilities with accurate vocals giving an authentic portrayal to this trouser role. What a guy!
The three remaining performers, while having smaller roles, did not stint on their vocals or dramatic interpretations. If fact, their commitment showed that Clemenza is really an ensemble opera.
Kaitrin Cunningham’s Servilia and Brandon Dale’s Annio made their search for requited love a charming affair. Cunningham’s clear vocals and Dale’s smoothly inflected tenor gave their duets a youthful ardor not always apparent in many productions. Cockrell and Roe decided to have a tenor sing Annio instead of a mezzo-soprano which is usually the case. Their decision proved to be judicious one. Charles Hamilton’s baritone was a solid Publio with enough bass sounds to bring out the character’s fretting concern over Tito and Sesto’s predicament. His interpretation solidified the ensemble.
There was no doubt about how well Cockrell prepared his Arizona Symphony Orchestra to overcome Mozart’s periodic gaps in musical freshness that can hold back the work. The conductor’s deep understanding of Mozart’s artistic intentions encouraged his musicians to downplay the gaps and accentuate the many sections of melodic beauty Mozart composed in the piece.
Roe has decided to retire at the end of the school year. He leaves his successor an operatic program that has grown leaps and bounds artistically and vocally over his 24-year tenure, first as vocal instructor and then as director of the University of Arizona’s Opera Theater. The new director will have an artistic pot of gold with which to excel.
Vitellia, daughter of a former Emperor of Rome, plans revenge on the new Emperor Tito for his decision to marry another woman. She persuades Tito’s loyal friend, Sesto, who is in love with Vitellia, to burn down the Capitol and murder Tito. Tito decides that Sesto’s sister, Servilia, should become his wife, but discovering that she is in love with Sesto’s friend, Annio, Tito renounces her and decides to marry Vitellia. This news comes too late to recall Sesto, who has been instrumental in setting fire to Rome and has almost murdered Tito. While under arrest, Sesto does not reveal Vitellia’s part in the conspiracy, but she herself confesses to being the author of the plan. Tito eventually forgives everyone, and the opera ends in general rejoicing.