In Series' impressive 'La Clemenza di Tito'

Lesser-known Mozart opera in fine production at the Atlas. Photo: Johannes Markus

WASHINGTON, January 29, 2013 – The In Series mounted its new production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito (The Mercy of Titus) at the Atlas this past weekend. We attended Sunday’s performance which played to a hugely packed house—a tribute, no doubt, to this plucky, local company that, against all odds, is able to offer operatic performances at bargain basement ticket prices. 

Based loosely on the history of the Roman Emperor Titus—the successor to his father, Vespatian who in turn had replaced the hated Nero—the opera’s basic plot honors this this ancient ruler’s admirable ability to forgive his enemies. But, for cynical 21st century Washingtonians, Titus’ forbearance seems almost comically absurd.

In the first place, as his father’s top general this supposedly merciful emperor, was actually the the guy in charge of the Roman army during its bloody sack of Jerusalem  and the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. In tribute to his triumph, imperial Rome erected the massive Arch of Titus in the capital city, a monument that stands to this day. 

But now, fast-forward to Rome roughly a decade later. This same heroic Titus is now serving as the empire’s new emperor. But he has apparently altered his character. In the course of Mozart’s opera—just under three hours—this once legendary general-turned-emperor is rejected by not one, but two intended brides (one of whom has plotted against him); and manages to survive an attempted assassination by his BFF, Sestio who also torches the Senate. But after a bit of suitably operatic soul searching, he forgives them all.

Oops. President Tito (Nephi Sanchez) isn’t yet aware that his bride-to-be, Servilla (Laura Wehrmeyer), Sesto’s kid sister, is in love with press secretary Annia (Anastasia Robinson). All photos credit Johannes Markus.

Still relatively unexplored today—its last major performance here was by the Washington National Opera in 2006—La Clemenza di Tito was composed by Mozart at a breakneck pace in 1791. Always in need of money, the already ailing composer was already wrapping up composition of Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) grabbed a commission in July of that year to write an opera seria* to celebrate the coronation of Leopold II—already the Holy Roman Emperor—as the new King of Bohemia, with festivities to occur in early September. 

The arrangement seemed to suit both Mozart and the event’s impressario, Domenico Guardasoni, almost perfectly. Guardasoni needed a new, high-quality opera composed, transcribed, and rehearsed under a virtually impossible deadline. So why not contract the job out to an erratic genius whose ability to do just that was already legendary?  

The admirable operatic result, the composer’s very last grand opera, met and exceeded Guardasoni’s specs, but soon fell into eclipse. The static, formalistic, cookie-cutter structure of classic opera seria had already been drifting out of favor, in no small part to Mozart’s own cutting-edge updates to the operatic genre. 

Mozart largely managed to play by opera seria rules in Tito, and the work remained relatively popular for a time. But the opera’s antiquated structure and rigid format gradually consigned it to the shadows after his death, and it was only fitfully performed throughout much of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Its first performance in North America did not occur until 1952.

Tito contains some lovely, showy music, although none of it is as memorable as the music in the composer’s more famous operas. Part of this was no doubt due to the lack of flexibility in the structure of the original commission. 

That said, however, even average Mozart is a cut above the best efforts of most composers, and Tito remains an opera that’s still worth seeking out if one can find a live performance. Given that the In Series is performing Tito two more times—this Saturday and Sunday, February 2 and 3—area audiences will have just that opportunity.

As an added bonus, the Series has spruced up this fusty old vehicle as they so often do with their full opera and pocket-opera productions, updating it, not implausibly, to the Washington, DC of the 1960s. Those who lived through this era and its violent domestic turmoil—including at least three notable and tragic political assassinations—will immediately be able to relate, giving this production of the opera a surprising relevance to our own times. 

The Series’ update reimagines Tito as our own POTUS, President Tito (Nephi Sanchez). Sesto, a trouser role sung by Madely Wanner, is his Benedict Arnold of a Chief of Staff. His vengeful former gal-pal, Vitellia (Daniele Loro), who plots with Sesto to achieve their mutual goal of making Tito sleep with the fishes, is the daughter of a prominent local pol; while Sesto’s lawyer-sister Servilia (Laura Wehrmeyer in a trouser role), the President’s intended bride, is secretly carrying on a lesbian affair with Tito’s Press Secretary Annia—a deliciously clever trouser-role role-reversal sung by Anastasia Robinson. 

More treachery in the White House. This time, Sesto (Madelyn Wanner) plots with once and future Tito flame Vitellia (Daniele Lorio). The POTUS can have days like this.

Hovering at the periphery of it all, Publio (Scott Thomas), Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, glowers at the personal and political nonsense, wishing there was a Constitutional way for him to clear out the hornet’s nest more efficiently. 

Oddly enough, this updated opera scenario is not much removed from the shenanigans that seem a typical part of political life in DC today when you think about it. 

Bonus: Charlotte Stoudt has provided an updated English libretto, loaded with political allusions and bits of sly Washington humor that further bring things up to date without violating either the music or the spirit of Mozart’s original. 

Musically speaking, it’s surprising how easily a Mozart opera like this one—which hearkens back to the baroque—can be adapted to a smaller instrumental ensemble without losing a great deal in the process. This is part of the reason why the In Series’ Mozart adaptations can ingeniously stage a good-sized opera while retaining a remarkable amount of its original scope and spirit.

Mozart’s orchestral score is reduced here to a few strings plus a versatile utility infielder/musician who handles several wind instruments, each chosen for its unique quality during specific arias or intervals; plus a pianist to underline the bass as well as accompany the recitatives, a task handled admirably on Sunday by series founder Carla Hübner.

This production’s homegrown set is also notable: a big, dramatic platform set at an angle, and suggesting the steps of the U.S. Capitol, even down to an impressive-looking array of classic pillars. On closer examination, those pillars are actually made of a gossamer fabric designed to resemble marble. Even this expense cutting move is transformed into a virtue later on in the performance, however. (But we won’t spoil the fun by telling you why that is in this review.) 

Except perhaps for one unlucky Secret Service agent, the cast of Tito is reconciled at last as one White House indivisible against the backdrop of the Red, White and Blue.

Budgets questions aside, as the Washington Concert Opera has proved time and time again, you can mount an enjoyable and enlightening opera under any circumstances if you have the right cast. And, as is so often the case, the In Series has done just that, bringing on a cast of fine soloists plus an excellent chorus, all of whom prove fully capable of handling the challenges inherent in Mozart’s score. 

Nephi Sanchez did well in the title role of Tito, singing with great conviction, particularly in the second act, although on Sunday, his voice may have betrayed a lingering bit of fatigue from his opening night performance. 

Anastasia Robinson and Laura Wehrmeyer as Annia and Servilia proved perfectly suited to their respective roles, as was Scott Thomas, whose performance as the straightlaced Publio added a good deal of gravitas to those scenes where he was featured. And Daniele Lorio brought out the conflicted character of a regal Vitellia, whose feisty, troubled spirit provides much of the drive that keeps the opera moving forward. 

In our opinion, the members of the chorus in this production deserve a special hat tip. Christine Browne-Munz, Ashley Dannewitz, Adriana Gonzalez, Shaina Martinez, Russell Silber, Jase Parker, Aaron Pendola and Sean Pflueger were tight, crisp, and always on key, transforming the opera’s purely choral moments into something wonderful. 

But perhaps the most eye-opening performance on Sunday was Madelyn Wanner’s masterful interpretation of Tito’s reluctant villain, Sesto. As an actress in a key trouser role, this marvelous mezzo was surprisingly convincing as Tito’s turncoat pal. As a vocalist, Ms. Wanner’s performance was convincing and secure, her ornamentation tight and accurate. Above all, her voice itself was clear, robust, emotional, yet fearless, possessing just the right qualities to address this opera’s peculiar blending of the classical and the baroque. She’s truly a talent who deserves greater notice as nearly anyone in attendance at Sunday’s performance will doubtless agree. 

The small chamber ensemble, under the able baton of Stanley Thurston, performed well, although we detected occasional uncertainty in the strings. 

And Steven Scott Mazzola’s direction was generally sure-handed, although at times we’d question some of his decisions—particularly the moments when the singers were directed to sing to the back of the stage rather than facing the audience. Although the opera was sung in generally clear English, the words were nearly always hard to hear during these back-facing intervals, which, while perhaps dramatically justified in terms of the ongoing action, simply didn’t work in terms of vocal projection.

Rating: *** (Three out of four stars.)

Performances of the In Series production of La Clemenza di Tito conclude this weekend on Saturday, February 2, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, February 3, at 3 p.m. Tickets range from an affordable $21-42 with the lower priced tickets aimed at students and seniors. For tickets and information, visit the In Series website. All performances at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street, NE, Washington, DC 20002. For directions, click here.

The Atlas offers a limited amount of parking at the United Church for All Peoples, located across H Street on the north side at 1314 H Street NE. You will need to purchase parking ($12) in this lot ahead of time, online to Atlasarts.org or call the Atlas box office (202) 399-7993.

H Street Parking LLC may still be available for valet parking ($12) at remaining performances. They serve the business strip adjacent to the Atlas. Call 202-345-5240 for more information. 

  * Opera seria was a strict operatic form hearkening back to the Baroque era. Its overture and musical structure were largely pre-determined by accepted convention. Extensive recitatives were either secco (sometimes known as “dry”) or stromentato (“stormy” or “wet”), with the former only accompanied by keyboard, while the more passionate second variety could bring in string accompaniment as well.

The various recitatives were interspersed with a series of arias and occasional duets or choruses, each generally based on a specific emotion and most consisting of an a-b-a structure.

In terms of vocalists, opera seria works frequently featured castrati in key male roles in an era when female opera singers were still something of a delicate issue. By Mozart’s time, there were not many castrati volunteers, so such roles eventually devolved to female singers who generally handle them today in what we generally call “trouser roles.”

 


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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times (1994-2009). 

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