Review: TITUS at OTSL - Grand Opera With No Deaths, No Vengeance?

By: Jun. 13, 2017

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.

Almost everyone - principals and the large chorus, are costumed mono-chromatically in black and light gray. The chorus (men and women) wear ankle-length black military great-coats and black tricorne hats-a striking and very ominous image. The young officers, Sesto and Annio, are graced with silver epaulettes. The only exceptions to the monochrome are the fiery Vitellia, who appears as a bright splash of crimson, and Titus in his imperial finery, who is the very image of Napoleon at his coronation wearing robes of staggering grandiosity. (Viz. portraits by David and Ingres.)

The many period wigs are beautifully appropriate - the work of Tom Watson.

Christopher Akerlind's lighting is dramatic and fluid, his burning Rome is exciting indeed. (And, by the way, Mr. Akerlind has just won a Tony for his lighting design of Indecent on Broadway.)

Titus is sung by René Barbera. This brilliant tenor is a favorite at OTSL and he just seems to get better and better. A sweet easy power and a butter-smooth uniformity of tone covers his entire range. His diction is exemplary.

Laura Wilde sings a strong, splendid Vitellia. She makes this woman enticing and flirtatious as well as vengeful. It is she who brings out the occasional element of comedy that lightens the story.

But, though Vitellia is the agent who drives the drama, this is in a sense really Sesto's story. It is he whose heart is pierced by the horns of this dilemma: love vs. loyalty. Cecelia Hall quite stole my heart last season as the young composer in Ariadne on Naxos (another "trouser role"). Here again she brings a superb voice and most convincing masculine ardor to the role of Sesto. She's simply terrific as this beautiful young man.

Emily D'Angelo and Monica Dewey sing Annio and Servilia, and they too do quite perfect work. Each shows a clear and beautiful voice and a most engaging stage presence.

Matthew Stump, who was so wonderful as the Bonze in Madame Butterfly, brings that same awe-inspiring basso power to the role of Publio, the Prefect of the Praetorian Guard. Physically a strong tower of a man, Stump simply commands the stage.

The wonderful chorus work is under chorus master Cary John Franklin. From time to time the chorus appears out in the auditorium, surrounding us in a mighty, dark army of voice.

Stage Director Stephen Lawless does beautiful work with this large cast.

Stephen Lord has been with OTSL for thirty-seven years and has been its Musical Director for twenty-five. After this season he will retire. When he entered the pit he was met with a loving standing ovation. From the first notes of the delicate overture - flutes, violins, bassoon, celli - it was clear that, as usual, he would lead his orchestra and singers to perfection.

Mr. Lord will not vanish but will still be present as Director Emeritus.

Titus at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis is a strikingly beautiful production, rich in style and drama and very, very rich in some of Mozart's most beautiful music. It runs through June 24.

(This review first appeared on KDHX, St. Louis.)

(Photo by Ken Howard)