Think treachery, deceit and betrayal, revenge and guilt. Think the politics of the 1960s. Washington Secret Service agents in sleek, black suits and button-down collars.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s often overlooked serious (seria) opera, La Clemenza Di Tito (The Mercy of Titus), that premiered in Prague in 1791, with Italian libretto by Caterino Mazzola, is adapted into English and updated, by the incomparable Charlotte Stoudt, who clarifies the text with relevant detail in the recitative and libretto and shifts from 79 AD, ancient Rome, to the modern age of terrorism. Yet, from an intimate, thrust-stage, the magnificence of Mozart prevails.
This is Director Steven Scott Mazzola’s debut with the In Series Opera Company, and already it is as if they are made for each other. His staging is exceptional– even thrilling at moments, the way he has nudged an ensemble of 14 wonderfully-talented singers (some newbies), to pull out all the stops, and go over-the-top as actors. A six-instrument, chamber orchestra, under conductor/music director Stanley Thurston, provides a well-modulated accompaniment.
Freshly installed American President Tito (Nephi Sanchez) is worried about his legacy: How will he go down in history? At the same time, Vitellia (Daniele Lorio), one of Tito’s castoff mistresses, is in a conspiracy to do just that– bring him down by assassination. The adoring Sesto (Madelyn Wanner), blindly infatuated with Vitellia, agrees to the killing, but has a hang-up. Tito is his best friend. He shoots Tito in the back anyway during a chaotic uprising. When Sesto is sentenced to death, Vitellia, washed out with guilt, confesses that she was behind the plot. Tito, who survives the attempt, is so moved by the self-sacrifice that he pardons all. On opening night, six lead performers, who delivered convincing, straight-ahead, impassioned performances, enthralled the audience and made the altruism work.
Thanks to Mazzola, these singing actors throw themselves into their roles like pole-vaulting Olympians. They dominate the stage with the greatest of grace under pressure on an ingenious set design by Greg Stevens. (Think tight budget.) Four Doric faux-marble columns are made of gauzy, scrim material. During the climactic insurrection at the close of Act I, the columns cooperate and collapse, against a bloody-red backdrop (lighting by Marianne Meadows.)
Listen for Mozart’s memorable arias. One must-mention: “Trust me, have faith….” (Parto, parto ma tu ben mio….” for those who know the Italian text). Mezzo-soprano Madelyn Wanner, shines with radiance in the trouser-role throughout this famous dialogue-duet between Sesto and the clarinet obbligato, delivered by clarinetist, Jonathan Yanik. A “trouser role” is when a female mezzo dons male costume, to replace the castrati, or castrated males, with high-pitched voice.
Wanner, her hair cropped short, military-style, projects a pure but insecure young man– a Sesto, torn between passionate love and painful guilt for his betrayal of Tito. That moving duet signifies Sesto’s inner battle: to remain dutifully loyal or surrender to thirst for power. His growing confidence to act sound like a heavenly, moral argument. Aptly, Wanner’s nuanced voice expands with her use of sweeping, open-palmed, male gestures that take full command of the stage. Yet, Wanner could let go further with wilder behavior to suggest Sesto’s irrational craziness under a cool exterior.
Tenor Nephi Sanchez, who is totally into his role as Tito, has an equally commanding stage presence. Sanchez displays pegged back phrasing, and often sacrifices tonal quality for impressive, in-the-moment expression, that suggests a lot of rumination is going on underneath the president’s posturing. “Power is only a prison of money and endless duty unless I can give hope.”
This is an opera with a lesson for the nobles in pre-French Revolution, when Europe groveled before the ideal that aristocrats sacrificed personal ease for high ideals; and benevolent dictatorship was best for the rabble.
Yet what’s fascinating is that Mozart apparently saw through that rubbish and created heroic characters, deeply conflicted with split-psychologies. Vitellia, torn between naked ambition and guilt, hungrily caresses a throne-like, cushy chair. Draped in a fur coat or tight-fitting, decolletage sheath (the 1960s Jackie Kennedy-like costuming by Donna Breslin), Lorio as Vitellia seductively arouses Sesto to run off stage to murder Tito. Then when Tito decides to make Vitellia his First Lady, she is “shaking with joy,” a self-mocking expression of her guilt.
La Clemenza Di Tito is serious stuff because of its political overtones. Still, Stoudt’s priceless dry recitative (without full musical accompaniment) offers some comic relief: What am I supposed to do with this money? Tito asks. One of the Aides says: “You could repair the city’s potholes.” The loyal Servilia, who obviously dislikes Vitellia, sing-speaks: “Don’t you have money to launder?”
La Clemenza de Tito
Closes February 3, 2013
Atlas Performing Arts Center
1333 H Street NE
2 hours with 1 intermission
Saturday and Sunday
Moreover, Mazzola directs his actors to use the stage to add symbolic dimension. Take the disparity between the revenge Vitellia desperately wants, as emoted with smoke and fire by a sensuous Lorio, and what Sesto doesn’t want to do. Here, the characters are placed far apart to represent wanna-be lovers from different classes. Vitellia, near the entrance to the Capitol, exerts dominance over Sesto, who stands at a lower level, off the platform. And we inhale their tension as they sing the duet, “Guide me, command me, always,….” with bodies back-to-back, or at a great stage distance from each other.
Overall, what I found profoundly moving, though, was Wanner’s whole-bodied demeanor of melancholia, the agony of a conflicted soul, that reflected in her face and eyes, attention-grabbing even into the curtain call. From the opera’s exquisite ending moments of self-sacrifice, we get the idea that lone voices are capable of rising above the mob of self-seekers.
There are other notable players. Anastasia Robinson does a good turn as Annia, the press secretary. Baritone Scott Thomas captures military authority as Publio, the hard-liner from the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And Laura Wehrmeyer, sings the role of Servilia, Sesto’s devoted sister, with a lyric soprano that soars.
This is a production that deserves a longer run. Long may it reign in the In Series repertoire.
La Clemenza Di Tito (The Mercy of Titus) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart . Adapted in English with dialogue and libretto by Charlotte Stoudt . Directed by Steven Scott Mazzola . Music Director/Conductor Stanley Thurston . Produced by In Series Opera Company . Performed in the Paul Sprenger Theater at The Atlas Theatre . Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy