In The Clemency of Titus, currently being presented at the Kennedy Center under its World Stages program, we have the most unbelievable plot imaginable given one of the most delightful productions imaginable. This production is well worth a visit. And I look forward to seeing anything else this collaborative produces.
The multi-award-winning Havana Lyceum Orchestra and Carlos Diaz, one of Latin-America’s most cutting-edge theater directors have worked together on this adaptation of Mozart’s Clemenza di Tito. Clemency looks at some of the effects of the intrusion of colonialism on the colonized. This production uses the island of Cuba as the locus of its exploration of this topic. Mozart seems especially suited for this sort of adaptation that emphasizes the tensions of class, race and the oppression inherent in their mixing. I am reminded that Ossie Davis did a similar thing in his play Purlie Victorious when he transposed the Beaumarchais/ Mozart Marriage of Figaro to the southern United States of America.
The plot: The Roman Emperor Tito has been established on this island, deposing the emperor Vitelio. Tito is known for his kind-heartedness and generosity. But Vitellia, the daughter of the deposed Emperor Vitelio, doesn’t see it that way. She enlists Sesto, who is a friend to Tito, but who is also besotted with her, to help overthrow the new Emperor. Here is an example of the Emperor Tito’s magnanimous nature. Tito wants Servilla as his bride and Empress. Servilla and Annio are in love with each other. But once Annio is informed that the Emperor has chosen Servilla as his bride, knowing that the two of them could simply be killed if necessary in order for the Emperor to have his way, he prudently steps aside. When Titus comes to woo her and announce his intention to wed her, Servillia states her willingness to follow the emperor’s desires and at the same time confesses the mutual love Annio and she have for each other. Titus praises Servillia’s honesty and integrity, retracts his call for marriage to Servillia and gives the couple his blessing. The ultimate clemency that Titus grants is consistent with the excessiveness of this example.
The Clemency of Titus closes February 15, 2020. DCTS details and tickets
The performances were uniformly excellent and passionate, with each actor/singer moving from speaking voice to singing voice smoothly. Anyelin Diaz as Vitellia was astounding, bringing the necessary internal conflict and vitriol to the role of someone committed to avenge a family member. And her voice tackled (this is the only word for it, her singing in this role was athletic) the Queen of the Night-like runs with gusto. In my years of seeing opera, opera singers have usually been more singers than actors. In this production, the performers combined both aspects of performing seamlessly and gave their bodies over to choreography – being lifted, tilted and twirled while singing – ways I had never seen before and which added to both the theatricality and believability of the characters in what is an unbelievable story. I know I am using the word a lot. But passionate – and imaginative- are the defining qualities for this production. And it was highly physical. And sexy and sensual. This was a gorgeous cast.
The dancing made full use of the attractiveness of the cast without falling into tastelessness. The choreography evoked different things at different times and was not limited to dancing sequences that filled in space when the singers weren’t singing. Instead, the dancers manipulated or became extensions of the singers’ bodies, illustrating moments when the characters were being manipulated like puppets by their circumstances. At other times they physicalized the emotion in the music in counterpoint to the singers’ expressions. It was revelatory with regards to what opera can do, if you use tradition as a springboard for possibilities rather than being constrained by it.
Colonization leaves its prints wherever it goes. The people in colonies are forever trying to wrest respect and room to express their being within the confines of the colonial forms of art, business and social commerce. European colonization has been our filter for global conversation and commerce since 1492. So, we don’t always see the reciprocal imprint in the European works of the people that were colonized.
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In this production we do see African and indigenous cultures in skin color, in movement, in music and in the approach to the presentation. Instead of being dressed in tuxedos and formal western wear for women, thus making a distinction between the performers in the world of the story on stage and the virtuoso-performers in the orchestra [forcing the audience to maintain a dual vision – one encompassing the so-called real world and one encompassing the fictional world requiring the suspension of disbelief], director Carlos Diaz has the orchestra – including the conductor/maestro – dressed as members of the community of the drama being enacted.
Until seeing this, I had not thought about what a wall there usually is between orchestra (really representing a stronghold, representative of the ownership of production, professional imprimatur and separation) and performers onstage – even in American musical theaters this is usually the case. I usually just accept this as the way it is supposed to be. I accept this as what defines opera and musical theater. The difference of including the orchestra as part of the storytelling tears down a wall in the imagination of the viewer. It puts all of us on the same page and footing. It makes it easier to “suspend disbelief” and to engage more fully with the story. Also, instead of being in a pit, as is usually the case with an opera orchestra, this orchestra is onstage with the singers and dancers. The orchestra is seen to be committed and vigorous. Thus these musicians are not merely mercenaries, professional hired hands. They have a vested interest in the outcome of this encounter of the colonialists with the colonized. It made this production one of the most accessible operas I have seen.
I wonder what it’s like to experience this opera if you are a Spanish speaker. In this production, the dialogue is in Spanish. (With English super-titles – awkwardly handled on the night I saw the show) So, if you speak Spanish, the performance may be even more accessible to you. It will then be that only the songs are in Italian whereas the dialogue is in a language that you speak yourself every day and understand how to manipulate with your own nuance. The songs are then in a language which, while related to yours, you have an angled perspective to. You can observe and assess these songs about the encounter between the colonist and the colonized. The songs don’t own you.
This production is only here for a short time. Go, if you can.
The Clemency of Titus written by Wofgang Amadeus Mozart, adapted by Norge Espinosa. Directed by Carlos Diaz. Cast Bryan Lopez, Anyelin Diaz, Cristina Rodriguez, Lesby Baustista, Kirenia Corzo, Ahmed Gomez. Accompanied by Compania OtroLado, Havana Lyceum Orchestra, NEWorks Voices of America Choir, Nolan Williams, Jr. Director. Musical Director Jose A Mendez. Choreographer Norge Cedeno. Scenic Designer Raul Valdes (RAUPA). Lighting Designer Oscar Ernesto Gozalez. Artistic and Production Director Ulises Hernandez. Music Arrangements Rogelio Riojas. Costume Designer Celia Ledon. Production Lead Abel Pons. Cultural Advisor Ever Chavez. Assistant Stage Director Celia Ledon. Presented by The Kennedy Center, World Stages . Reviewed by Gregory Ford.