|Yeon Jung Lee and Marie-Gabrielle Arco (photo by Carol Rosegg)|
La Clemenza di Tito is a rather static offering, hastily written by Mozart in 1791, as a commission to celebrate Leopold II's coronation as King of Bohemia. This would explain why the eponymous Tito is portrayed as a marvelous ruler, beloved by his people, and possessed of all kinds of admirable qualities.
Such a hero is not terribly interesting so we are fortunate that he is surrounded by all kinds of interesting characters. Librettist Caterino Mazzola adapted the story from a libretto by Metastasio. It must have been appealing because about 40 composers set the story before Mozart got his hands on it.
In a stunning production at the Manhattan School of Music, a brilliant cast of women brought these characters to vivid life. The direction by Dona D. Vaughn kept the action moving along and brought a great deal of intensity to the interaction of the characters, such that we "got" this opera for the first time.
Tito, as fine a character as he is, is not a lucky man. Beatrice Queen of Judea, his first love, is not Roman and he was obliged to give her up. He decides to marry the lovely Servilia, sister to his friend Sesto, but she confesses that her heart has been given to Annio, Sesto's friend. With great magnanimity, Tito releases her as well. That leaves Vitellia who ain't too happy about being passed over so many times.
The backstory is that Tito's father dethroned Vitellia's father, so she feels entitled to the throne. She wants vengeance on Tito and persuades the lovesick Sesto to assassinate Tito. The plot is uncovered, Sesto is charged and convicted, Vitellia feels remorse and confesses her role as instigator, and the morally superior Tito forgives everyone and takes Vitellia as his consort. Whew!
Women in pants roles can be difficult to accept when they are roundly shaped and have feminine gestures. What a surprise to hear two sensational singers who are totally convincing in their roles. Statuesque mezzo-soprano Marie-Gabrielle Arco carried off the part of the lovesick Sesto and we doubt that we will ever hear that role so well acted and sung.
To show desperate love for a rejecting woman without sounding wimpy is quite an achievement. The colors of the voice were perfectly employed, along with fine phrasing and clear Italian diction. "Parto, parto", the most frequently sung aria extracted from this opera, was particularly well performed. Not every young singer who calls herself a mezzo has an instrument this richly textured.
The other mezzo-soprano was equally convincing. Alanna Fraize fulfilled all the demands of the role of Annio. She used her lovely voice well and portrayed a likeable character who is quite the optimist. He is reluctantly willing to give up his beloved Servilia when he believes she will be changed from his lover to his Empress. His duet with her is a heartbreaking one--"Ah, perdona al primo affetto". The fact that we just wrote "he" would seem to highlight just how convincing SHE was! Her solo "Torna di Tito a lato" was absolutely thrilling.
Both sopranos in the cast were similarly outstanding. In the role of the seductive and manipulative Vitellia, Yeon Jung Lee emphasized the strong core of her instrument to convey strength of will. At the end of the opera, Vitellia undergoes a change of character and Ms. Lee's strength of will is colored with remorse in her show-stopping aria "Non più di fiori".
As Servilia, Jianing Zhang sang with a pleasing tone. We particularly enjoyed her aria "S'altro che lagrime" as she tries to persuade Vitellia to take action to save Sesto, who has demonstrated his love for Vitellia by not betraying her role in the plot against Tito.
Although working against time, Mozart's magic managed to fill the opera with so many marvelous arias, duets, and ensembles that one could not keep track of them all.
The role of Publio was well sung by Liang Zhao and Wooyoung Yoon performed the role of the magnanimous Tito.
The chorus, directed by Miriam Charney was outstanding in their diction, as usual.
Under the baton of George Manahan, the Manhattan School of Music Opera Orchestra did a swell job. The overture did not anticipate the themes of the opera but sounded like the first movement of a symphony. Special props to clarinetist Narek Arutyunyan for the solos.
The production itself was an eye-catching one. The costuming by Tracy Dorman was simply gorgeous and resembled our fantasies of Ancient Rome. The women of the chorus wore long floaty garments while Servilia was appropriately gowned in white with Vitellia in royal purple. The men were elaborately garbed with exactly what one might see in an epic film. Shins were guarded and spears were carried. But nary a chariot in sight!
Authentic looking wigs were designed by Dave Bova and J. Jared Janas.
Erhard Rom's set design was simple but effective--stone walls, Corinthian columns, a marble throne. All was well lit by Tyler Micoleau who managed to suggest the flames of Rome burning.
It's a wonderful experience to acquire affection for an opera one had previously dismissed. For this we credit Ms. Vaughn's direction and the superlative singing and playing. If only every opera going experience were this mind-changing!
(c) meche kroop
Addendum: After three Mozart events in two days, we still wanted more! Like champagne, perhaps you can have too much Mozart but you can never get enough. We returned to hear the other cast in La Clemenza di Tito at Manhattan School of Music. Mezzo-soprano Hongni Wu, while not as physically imposing as Ms. Arco, sang the role of Sesto with gorgeous tone and impressive musicality, as well as dramatic intensity. Soprano Abigail Shapiro was outstanding as the fickle Vitellia and showed all the colors of the vocal rainbow in her final aria "Non più di fiori". Tenor Philippe d'Esperance made a superb Tito--confident and affecting in his onstage presence and exhibiting a gorgeous tone. We are so glad we returned. Whichever cast you heard, we are sure you had a thrilling experience.