22 Ocober 2006: Mozart, La Clemenza di Tito

Matinee. Opera Boston, at the Cutler Majestic Theatre. Based on a libretto by Metastasio. Conducted by Gill Rose. Stage director: Brad Dalton

I had never encountered this very late opera by Mozart, which emerged almost at the exact same time as The Magic Flute, and so I had to read up on it a bit. On paper — specifically, the summary in The New Kobbe’s Complete Opera Book — the plot makes one’s head whirl. But “plot,” especially in opera, doesn’t differ­en­tiate between what is enacted on stage and what is narrated or recapitulated there. Once the opera is staged, it is much easier to follow, particularly if the sup­er­titles are up to standard, as they were in this production. (Even if the opera is sung in English, I’m grateful for supertitles, since I inevitably have trouble inter­preting sung language.) For a long time the reputation of this late effort by Moz­art was not high, but times have changed now, and it seems to have come truly into its own. The music is in fact lovely, and characteristic of Mozart and his late, spare, classical best. Never mind how old-fashioned opera seria is supposed to have been by 1791. Leopold II, King of Bohemia, didn’t know that, or didn’t care, and the commission that made its way to Mozart on ridiculously short notice drew a blaz­ingly brilliant response, of which we are all of us latter-day beneficiaries.

In fact, the twists and turns of the action are not so much confusing as just plain intriguing — in the sense of a complex plot. What it all hinges on is the need of a wife by the recently ascended emperor, Tito, known to be an exemplary model of ethical and compassionate behavior. For Tito read, of course, Leopold, who seems to be simultaneously flattered by this model ruler’s decisions and exhorted to live up to the high standard they set. All that being as it may, how­ever, the dramatic truth here is that a ruler so good, selfless, and magnanimous is inevitably, and ironically, bound to inspire lesser beings to acts of jealousy, rage, defamation, and vindictive vengeance, perhaps even attempted assassination — as is the case here. As each new venality or fall from grace emerges, the Emperor is called upon to exercise his restraint, his love for his fallen subjects; in short, his clemency. Hence the title of the opera and the numerous twists and turns of action that ensue.

I will not take more space to rehearse the further particulars; see Kobbe. What becomes important here is how the music and drama combine — I might have said “conspire” — in the kind of seamless artistic blend of which Mozart as an opera­tic composer seems again and again to be capable. Astonishing, is what it is, especially when his art is aided and abetted by such fine singers. Surely the stand­­out — and the audience all knew it — was the Sesto, Phyllis Pancella, a mezzo with great range and power and at the same time a silken smooth voice equally dramatic, passionate, and yet pure at any and every point along her range (there are more musicologically cogent ways of saying that, I feel sure, but I am not a musicologist). She was, as the music and action intended her to be, a perfect foil to the Tito, Paul Austin Kelly, a very strong but not truly gifted tenor — what I believe is referred to as “second-tier”; that is, a cut below actual or potential superstar. He stood tall and thoughtful, and he showed us how much his character was weighed down by the burdens of office. Wendy Bryn Harmer is a young singer with a rich soprano voice; her voice is in fact poised between sop­rano and mezzo qualities. Her role, that of the femme fatale Vitellia, who really wants to marry Tito but is jealous enough of his alternative choices that she can seek his death and can suborn her lover, Sesto, to do the dirty deed, did not sit as easily on her as perhaps it should. She is a little young for it, perhaps, and could not really sink her teeth into it. And the costumes she was given made her look just plain fat. But she was not out of place in the role, either, and maturity may bring her such rewards as Lady Macbeth of Mtensk (Shostakovich’s doomed heavy lady).

Speaking of “young,” Phyllis Pancella seems to be still that, and meanwhile seems to need no sleep at all, she has learned and performed so many roles, including Carmen for Houston Grand Opera last year. She is all over the place; maybe she is thirty, but she looked more like twenty-three, in her short haircut for this travesty role of male lover to Vitellia. I could listen to her all night. Other equally strong singers rounded out a very even and competent cast, including Kevin Deas as the bass Publio.

Really, this is very, very good opera altogether. The stage director occasion­ally gave singers the challenge of singing full voice from kneeling or even prone or supine positions; they seemed quite unaffected by it all. Basically, he moved his characters around enough so that it didn’t get monotonous, and otherwise stayed out of the way of the music without ever sacrificing plausibility or the dramatic demands of impassioned moments. A neat trick if you can do it. As a subscriber, I look forward keenly to the next two operas: The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogonny and The Pearl Fishers.

I should have mentioned that this was a modern dress production. The action is set in a nameless Eastern European country; it could be Bulgaria or Romania. The male costumes are dictator-style military, just post-brown shoe; high black boots for Sesto. The women’s dresses are floor-length, and I had trouble placing that in the context of the male military costumes.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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