Here is my Tuesday April 21 suntimes.com and Wednesday April 22 Chicago Sun-Times review of Chicago Opera Theater's Saturday April 18, 2009, opening night performance of Mozart's La clemenza di Tito.
Mozart's 'La clemenza di Tito' a trump at Chicago Opera Theater
BY ANDREW PATNER
Through May 1
Brian Dickie and Chicago Opera Theater have done it again.
Taking a rarity, Mozart’s infrequently performed La clemenza di Tito, handing it over to an expert conductor and a thoughtful stage director, and scouring the world for young singing talent, COT general director Dickie had a full house Saturday night at the Harris Theater mesmerized for two and a half hours and then on its feet cheering for five minutes as if this had been an all-star Puccini tearjerker.
Last staged at Lyric Opera of Chicago almost 20 years ago with a cast led by the late Tatiana Troyanos and featuring the professional debut of Susan Graham, La clemenza di Tito ("The Clemency of Titus") is an odd opera out for one of the form’s greatest composers. Written in 1791 on a last-minute commission for a lesser Hapbsurg ruler’s third coronation, the work came with a predetermined libretto, and during a time when Mozart, in the few months he had left to live, also was tidying up The Magic Flute, writing his clarinet concerto, and starting on his Requiem.
The commission also called for Mozart to return to opera seria, whose repeating-aria, limited-action form was already on the wane when he had written Idomeneo, also in the same style, 10 years before. But Mozart’s magic in La clemenza, as in so much else throughout his prolific career, was to take pre-existing forms and animate them, not only musically but with his unusually humane spirit.
Attendees at COT’s outstanding production seemed to go from “Wow, this is great music that I don’t know but that sounds like Mozart” to “Wow, I need to hear this again!”
We know from years of exposure at COT that Jane Glover is an essential Mozartean. What a pleasure to have her do her first-ever La clemenza di Tito here. In a story that makes an intensely personal investigation into the moral conflicts of the Roman emperor Titus, Glover shaped her orchestra to be martial, celebratory, mournful, or even questioning as appropriate. Charlene Zimmerman and Linda Baker were soloists on clarinet and basset horn, respectively, in two sung arias that are almost like duets with their instruments.
The stage director is Christopher Alden, who was banished from Lyric after his brilliant 2000 production of Verdi’s Rigoletto proved too much for Lyric’s stuffy patrons. His direction shows us what we’ve been missing. He animates the static story (a usurping emperor decides to be motivated by goodness after his crime and must deal with his predecessor’s vengeful daughter) by showing us that Mozart’s insights into human character are themselves timeless. His designers, Andrew Cavanaugh Holland (set), Terese Wadden (costumes), and Christine Binder (lighting) are with him every illuminating step of the way.
And what a cast. When Gurnee-born soprano Amanda Majeski, a recent Northwestern graduate, starts to sing as the distraught Vitellia, you wonder if she’s not some ringer from the Golden Age. This George London Award winner, with a voice that’s big, seductive, and characterful, has the goods. The Croatian mezzo Renata Pokupic, in the trouser role of the would-be assassin Sesto, has more experience but all the youth and soulfulness of her colleagues. Missouri native tenor Dominic Armstrong tackles the difficult role of Tito with a palpable love of its challenges. Irish mezzo Paula Murrihy is a lovestruck Annio who’s both hilarious and poignant. American soprano Charlotte Dobbs has a fine debut as Servilia and Lyric alum Andrew Funk is always welcome as COT’s utility bass, here as a Chuck Colson-like Publio, the hard-hearted adviser to Tito.
Alden has the crack young chorus of COT trainees masked to remind us of both the uniformity and anonymity of the masses as far as the Roman elites are concerned. The effect is both humorous and chilling under chorus master Stephen Hargreaves's strong direction.