We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Thursday, April 25, 2024


 Curtain call at Juilliard for Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito

What sort of work might please a newly crowned Emperor in the late 18th c.? How about a tale of a beloved magnanimous Emperor from Ancient Rome named Titus? An old libretto by Metastasio was tailored to meet the demands of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart by one Caterino Mazzolà, after Antonio Salieri repeatedly declined the commission for a work to celebrate the coronation of   Leopold II, Holy Roman Emperor, as King of Bohemia. It is believed that Mozart rose to the occasion and composed the opera in 18 days, possibly beginning his labors on the 4 day coach trip from Vienna to Prague.

The story is a simple one and quite direct. Newly installed  Emperor Tito (tenor Andrew Turner). is beloved by his friends, two noblemen named Sesto (mezzo-soprano Ruby Dibble) and Annio (mezzo-soprano Lucy Joy Altus), but not so beloved by the daughter of the former deposed ruler named Vitellia (soprano Evelyn Saavedra) a vengeful and narcissistic character. She is furious not only because of her father's fate, but also because she wants to be Empress and Tito has preferred others. She manipulates Sesto, who is madly in love with her, into murdering Tito.

Meanwhile, Sesto's sister Servillia (soprano Shelén Hughes) is so in love with Annio that she refuses Tito's proposal of marriage in a confession that is so brave that Tito can do nothing but admire her honesty.

This is indeed a family drama writ large on the political stage. The entire point is that after the Senate condemns the guilty Sesto for his failed assassination attempt, Tito forgives all and tears up the death warrant. The ambivalent confusion of Sesto was extremely well limned. What a weak man won't do for love (lust)!  The one psychological dynamic that didn't read true is the sudden burst of honesty on the part of Vitellia who confesses her role in instigating the assassination plot. We must say that Ms. Saavedra's acting was persuasive in spite of the unrealistic plot turn.

This opera is not nearly as famous as the three operas Mozart wrote with Da Ponte and we can see why. Although the music is as fine as Mozart every wrote, the plot lacks the entertainment value of Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovani, and Cosi fan tutti, all of which are comedies with serious messages. La Clemenza di Tito is an opera seria, the last of a dying breed. Perhaps if the opera were heard as often as the other three, or Zauberflöte, the melodies might lodge in our ear and provide a more rewarding experience. The famous duet "Parto, parto, ma tu, ben mio" is perhaps the most famous and heard often in recital. Last night it was given a beautiful performance by Ms. Saavedra and Ms. Dibble.

Ms. Hughes had her chance to shine in "S'altro che lagrime" in Act II, and Sesto's noble aria of forgiveness was handsomely performed by Mr. Turner. Ms. Altus had a fine aria in "Torna di Tito a lato" demonstrating real care for Sesto's fate.  As they say, there are no small roles and baritone Shavon Lloyd's appearance in the role of Publio was just fine.

Not only was the singing of excellent quality but the Juilliard Orchestra gave their customary exemplary performance under the baton of Maestro Nimrod David Pfeffer. In spite of the fact that the orchestra was not in its usual sunken position, Mo. Pfeffer controlled the dynamics so effectively that there was not a single instance in which a singer was drowned out. We particularly enjoyed the passages in which the Bass Clarinet wove around the vocal line.

Stephen Wadsworth's direction made the most of a mostly static plot. A decision had been made to dress the artists in late 18th c. garb. We have no idea what the singers wore when the opera made its premiere in 1791. We would have preferred to see it in togas but were relieved that it was not performed in contemporary clothing. The distancing to an earlier period allowed us draw our own contrast with contemporary times in which a ruler might pardon those guilty of crimes for reasons which we find cynical--like political advantage, whereas Tito pardons out of love and magnanimity.

Charlie Corcoran's scenic design was simple and effective. A ramp leading up from ground level to an upstairs door and a simply demarcated area at ground level. The entire stage was surrounded by a frame.

Sara Jean Tosetti's costumes were effective with the two female character dressed in a manner that reflected their very different character. Costumes for the breeches roles were convincing and Tito looked suitably imperial.

Juilliard Vocal Arts has once again filled a major gap in New York City's cultural landscape, providing a most satisfying experience to the audience and valuable performance opportunities for students. Before we end we would like to commend Chorus Master John Arida for melding many voices into an exceptional unit, notable for clear diction. This, Dear Reader, is a rare achievement.

© meche kroop

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