BWW Review: TITUS at OTSL - Grand Opera With No Deaths, No Vengeance?
The Opera Theater of St. Louis has opened the fourth and last production of it's forty-second festival season. It's Mozart's final opera, La clemenza di Tito, or (as it's billed for this English-language performance) simply Titus. Everything about this production - from its glorious voices and orchestral display to the set, costumes, lights and sound - is as near perfect as could be imagined.
The story is set in first century A.D. Rome, but stage director Stephen Lawless has placed it in Mozart's own time - the late 18th Century. This was the very pinnacle of the Enlightenment - before the French Revolution had gotten really bloody. Mozart composed this opera on commission as part of the celebration of the coronation of Leopold II as King of Bohemia. Mozart, always a quick fellow, allegedly composed the score in eighteen days. (Mozart's habit was to compose in his head - to the very last semiquaver - and then just quickly write everything down. I'm assuming that that eighteen days included thinking time too.)
He used a libretto by Pietro Metastasio that was nearly sixty years old - and which had already been set to music by more than forty other composers, but this story of the mercy of Titus was politically appropriate for the coronation of this particular king. Leopold was already Holy Roman Emperor and reigned over a long list of domains, large and small. As Grand Duke of Tuscany he had shown himself the very model of an enlightened monarch: he strove to give his people a constitution, he reduced taxes, he urged liberal reforms in the penal code and in the treatment of the insane. Perhaps most pertinent to the story of Titus is the fact that five years before this opera's premiere Leopold had abolished capital punishment in Tuscany. He was the first to do so in modern times. So, a story about a benevolent, merciful monarch? But of course!
The musty old libretto? Caterino Mazzolà was brought in to shorten and to modernize it.
So we have a grand opera - an opera seria - with no murders, no revenge? Well, who needs 'em? Mozart's glorious music gives all the grandness that any grand opera requires. (And, well, yes, Rome burns. I guess that's kind of grand too.)
There's a curious similarity between the cast of Titus and that of Handel's Richard the Lionheart which OTSL did two seasons ago. Each of these operas has a primary and a secondary romantic couple, and in each opera all four of these lovers are written for treble voices. In Richard we find counter-tenors singing the male roles; in Titus the "trouser roles" are sung by a mezzo-soprano and a soprano.
The plot concerns the difficulty Titus finds in selecting a bride. He's in love with a princess of Judea, but the people of Rome insist that he marry a Roman. This excites the hopes of the beautiful Vitellia; she deserves to be empress, for after all her father had been emperor. But Titus chooses instead Servilia, the sister of his best friend Sesto. Hell hath no fury, as you know, so Vitellia urges Sesto to kill Titus. Sesto is so in love with her that, despite himself, he agrees.
But . . . Servilia confesses to Titus that she's in love with Annio. Nice guy Titus merely says, "well, OK. I'll choose another bride. I'll choose Vitellia!"
But . . . the assassination is already in motion! Confusion! Chaos! Rome burns! Is the emperor dead? Must Sesto be executed?
The set and costumes by Leslie Travers are visually stunning! Simple, spare. In the dim opening light a colossal . . . something . . . hovers over the entire stage. As light slowly grows we recognize it as a vast steely Roman eagle, wings spread, talons gripping on the left a bundle of spears, on the right an Olive Branch. Titus muses on these from time to time in his struggle to choose between punishment and mercy.