Monday, June 19, 2017

'Titus': Opera Theatre of St. Louis' eye-opening production of a political opera

You might call Mozart's last opera, "La clemenza di Tito," a case of Roman imperial
The title character of Mozart's opera rules in the shadow of the imperial eagle.

intrigue and love tangles — with lots of fuzz.

Fired FBI director James Comey recently testified "there should be no fuzz" on the matter of Russian interference with our presidential election last November. To borrow that homespun description, there seems to be nothing but fuzz about this opera's complications during the reign of the Emperor Titus in first-century Rome. Ambivalence runs riot; deadly alliances shift abruptly. 

But the Opera Theatre of St. Louis' current production shows the substance beneath the fuzz, with the peerless assistance of Mozart's music, draped upon a Metastasio libretto set to music many times before the Austrian genius put his seal upon the opera seria subgenre. 

Clarity is tantalizingly delayed in the story of a decently inclined emperor's effort to
Vitellia longingly contemplates the empress' crown.
settle upon a bride while ruling successfully over a restive populace bedeviled by intrigues that flare into civil war by the end of the first act. The turmoil on which "Titus" focuses concerns Vitellia, daughter of Titus' deposed predecessor, who is twice blocked in her expectation to be the new imperial consort.

The show is notable especially for company devotees as the last production for Stephen Lord as the company's music director. After this season, the veteran maestro will shift to his specialty of nurturing young singers for OTSL with the "emeritus" honorific added to his job title. How fitting that a Latin designation marks this transition when the vehicle is "Titus" (the name OTSL has given the opera in Daniel Dooner's new translation)! Of his conducting in this performance, the smooth coordination of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra with singers, particularly in the accompanied recitatives, stood out.

The production's setting is not rigorously ancient Rome — specifically, 79 A.D., when the year's big news was the destruction of Pompeii by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. That event prompts one of several demonstrations of Titus' humanity, as  he directs imperial funds toward survivor relief. This "Titus" also suggests the nascent USA of the late 18th century, with the main symbolic link to ancient Rome being the eagle. In American iconography, the bird clutches arrows in one talon, an olive branch in the other, looking toward the latter as an indication that the republic prefers peace.

Leslie Travers' set design is dominated by a huge, fierce eagle, constructed in several parts and raised and lowered on wires to suit the action, about which more later. These Roman citizens wear long black coats, knee breeches, powdered wigs and tricorns on their heads. The overlay works pretty well, especially if one accepts the prospect that even the young American republic bore signs of imperial ambition, which in first-century Rome had been largely realized as memories of its republican heyday faded. (See Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," a New York production of which recently occasioned much malicious misunderstanding.)

The singing was firmly centered and well-projected throughout the cast. Supertitles accompany the arias, but not the recitatives, which varied slightly in intelligibility. In the title role, the tenor René Barbera was steady and vigorous, yet with a fine lyrical bloom to his voice. A character known for one trait above all else is hard to make fully human. But this Titus was a relentless and believable exponent of clemency. Well into the second act, his good nature has been sorely tried to the point of confusion, as he admits in a passage that drew sympathetic laughter from Friday's audience.

Vitellia knows how to use Sesto's devotion to her.
The proximate cause of most of his difficulties — the jilted, vengeful Vitellia — was portrayed with vocal and dramatic mastery by Laura Wilde. Her great second-act aria, notable for its basset-horn obbligato (played brightly from the the pit by principal clarinetist Scott Andrews) and its tremendous range, came off splendidly.  It gave the impression that Vitellia had finally grown a sense of perspective, guided by the moral example of the emperor she is finally matched with.  Also fascinating, and staged a bit bawdily, was her seductive first-act explanation of ambition to Annio and Sesto (both "trouser roles," the latter originally for a castrato). They are young men harboring romantic and career desires of their own under difficult circumstances. 

Cecelia Hall staunchly fulfilled the considerable requirements of Sesto, a gentleman deeply conflicted between his friendship with Tito and his love for Vitellia. Enlisted in a plot he is horrified to undertake, Sesto has resonance with political time-servers in every era, up through the present day. How much service toward what cause are they prepared to offer, and at what cost to their poise and integrity? As Sesto leaves Vitellia on his deadly errand, he sings an emotionally rich aria (with another virtuosic clarinet obbligato); Hall was equal to the piece's contrasts and mounting excitement.

Emily D'Angelo was particularly impressive as Sesto's friend Annio, in love with his buddy's sister Servilia, sung with ingenue pertness by Monica Dewey. Annio has a showpiece in the second act that concentrated D'Angelo's keen articulation and a vocal timbre that was believably masculine without strain. The half-dozen solo roles were completed by bass Matthew Stump's ringing Publio, prefect of the Praetorian Guard and thus a key member of Titus' small, increasingly overwrought inner circle.

Staging by director Stephen Lawless was flawlessly linked to the set design and movement. Offstage choruses and entrances and exits of the Roman citizens always had unity and power. The stage pictures were striking and apt. That magnificent eagle, merely glimpsed at first in partial lighting of legs and talons that made them seem abstract, suddenly becomes concretely visible with the initial entrance of Titus and the chorus accompanying it.

As Titus' reign is threatened, the eagle separates into parts and is ominously lowered.
With the cataclysm that ends the first act, the stage is aglow with fires in the capital, ashes keep drifting downward, and the eagle is fragmented, earth-bound and tinged a cold, metallic gray. The glum finale provides a stark warning of the perils of a civil order's collapse. The chorus points outward, implying the culpability of the audience in this decline.

Lovers Servilia and Annio are caught up in the fiery civil conflict.
Such a gesture has been effective in productions of "Sweeney Todd" (the lunatics' chorus "City on fire" near the end) and also, more comically, in the farewell ensemble reminder in Verdi's "Falstaff" that "all are fools" (tutti gabbati). "Titus"' finger-pointing amid the ashes and the wreck of venerated icons captures 2017, somehow; it made for a timely OTSL vision that will long stay with me.

In the course of the second act, the eagle is lifted and reassembled for the most part. Yet the arrows and the olive branch remain on the floor, suggesting that the imperial eagle can't be restored in all its former significance even after power centralized in a good ruler has been reaffirmed. The final chorus, with the emperor's splendid assertion of control, offers the promise of a happy ending (essential to the opera seria tradition).

But when the noble Titus doffs the imperial wreath and slips on an eagle mask for the final chords, we sense a chilling affinity with Louis XIV's "l'état, c'est moi." In both art and life, admiration and apprehension of strong leadership will always be uneasy partners in statecraft, this thought-provoking production reminds us.

[Photos by Ken Howard]

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