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Institutionalizing La Clemenza di Tito

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Boston University’s Opera Institute production of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito attracted a strong turnout of students and community members to the Saturday matinée at the Tsai Center. Soprano Margaret Tigue (Vitellia) and Sarah Zieba (Sesto) formed a dramatic pair at the heart of the opera, blending ideally while providing just enough contrast to clearly distinguish one from the other. The strong actors energized every scene they entered. Zieba played Sesto as a playful character, ultimately making his betrayal and regret tangible to the audience. We could see the grief eating her alive! Tigue’s Vitellia was no less vivacious but came off as more reserved, more scheming. The juxtaposition of her civil blue dress and barbarous attitude made her into the story’s undeniable femme fatale. Apart from each other, their solo scenes produced some of the highlights of the show. Zieba’s rendition of Oh dei, che smania è questa came across as a fiery monologue unencumbered by the meter or notes of the recitative accompagnato. I’m confident it would have received a standing ovation had Mozart not segued it into the first act’s finale. There were well deserved applause and cheers for Tigue after her pivotal scene at the end of the second act which began with Ecco il punto. Many in the audience leaned forward as she held us on the edge of our seats. We needed no subtitles to understand what she was saying, and the sequence also showcased her capacity for florid Italian diction. Some credit must also go to her stage partner to Jake Pierson, principal clarinet Jake Pierson, who tenderly shadowed the voice of her conscious throughout Non più di fiori. At some moments, he took the form of gingerly squawking basset notes that sounded like soft palpitations of harp strings while at other his chromatic ornaments communicated the dagger-wounds that tore at Vitellia’s heart. Zieba and Pierson shared a similar moment in the first act’s Parto, parto., though the orchestra, which consistently sounded about 15-20% too loud for the voice (approximately 30% too loud for the chorus), drowned out such subtleties. Such passages obviously prefigure subsequent masterpieces, such as Der Hirt auf dem Felsen, which further explore this divine pairing.

Sopranos Annabrett Ruggiero (Annio) and Madeleine Lew (Servilia) formed another complimentary pair. Their radiant voices and brilliant vibrati melded their tones well. Their aching duet, Ah perdona al primo affetto, stunned the audience (as well as earning the performance a PG-13 rating). I doubt there was a dry eye or unaffected heart in the room, especially when Lew leapt as joyously as a spring ewe to the celestial high A towards the end of the number. The arias breathless finale underscored the ravishment all felt at its conclusion, which Ruggiero and Lew sealed with a sensitively delivered kiss. Applause followed.

Ilhee Lee embodied the role of Tito with the extreme stoicism and temperance to befit the model of an enlightened monarch, leaving much expression to his powerful bass voice. William O’brien filled his role as the emperor’s servant Publio similarly, with an imposing baritone presence of both stature and spirit. They completed the main cast, Mozart using them less as a duo and more as additions to make trios.

Conductor William Lumpkin shepherded the players and singer without hiccup (save for some notorious trumpet entrances). Timings felt natural, and no one ever seemed rushed. The strings and woodwinds made a strong showing, particularly among sublime flutes and clarinets, though the brass came off as barely adequate. Maria Rabbia’s fortepiano continuo underscored the conflict of the dialogic recitatives that filled the space between larger musical numbers. I must commend her for the use of the ‘trailing off’ arpeggio to mimic the disease and lingering anxiety many characters felt, but the nearly continuous arpeggiation of chords vitiated the impact of this technique. I would encourage the cembalist to experiment with a wider ranging improvisation and maybe play through tuttis: the moderator on that instrument can yield a very convincing harp sound when heard rippling beneath strings. I was shocked to see the pianist’s chair facing away from the stage when I looked over the wall at intermission. I had assumed she must have been watching the singers in order to play so well in time with them. Kudos.

I enjoyed every scene the chorus sang in, both on and off stage. Their gentle observations greatly enhanced the emotional impact of the narrative’s events, from their woeful lament at the end of the first act to their sober song of thanks at the beginning of the second. I most enjoyed their offstage exclamations of torment as the coup burned the Capitol. In addition to their singing skills, many expressed a far more believable reaction to the revealing of the final plot twist than most titular characters offered throughout the performance. Eva Summer’s minimalistic set utilized but two pieces: a small table in an early scene and a bench for the second act. Four fabric columns filled center-and-up-stage unto which various visuals found themselves projected. Many patrons around me found it difficult to discern the intention of the images. The company tells us that they were a combination of geographic locations (Rome), flowers in different stages of growth/bloom, forest locations, a fire burning (representing the city in flames) moonscapes, stars, images of the singers in profile, and in shadow — almost appearing in a ghost-like manner, and classic Roman columns representing the period.

A musicology PhD student at Boston University, Christopher Hodges earned a M.M. in organ performance with Peter Sykes.

A key to the Jacob Chang-Rascle photos

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  1. Nice job – a very vivid review of an important work. Kudos to the excellent students involved!

    A FEW CONTEXT NOTES – lots of people contributed to “Mozart’s” opera in this case

    HOW WAS THIS OPERA POLITICAL?
    The capitol burns and there is political upheaval… so why did aristocrats want to see that?

    Mozart’s “La clemenza di Tito” was a product of a time in European history dominated by the French Revolution. Corneille’s 1639 play “Cinna, ou La Clémence d’Auguste” was well known in 17th- and 18th-century France. Marie Antoinette paraphrased it when speaking in a deposition to judges after her 1789 arrest: “J’ai tout vu, tout su, et j’ai tout oublié. [I saw all, knew all, and forgot all]” (echoing Emperor Augustus at the end of Corneille’s play: “Auguste a tout appris, et veut tout oublier” [A. has learned everything, and wants to forget everything]).

    Also before Mozart’s opera, Metastasio’s libretto for “La clemenza di Tito,” written for Emperor Charles VI (Marie Antoinette’s grandfather), preserved the same sentiment (in Tito’s last monologue): “Sia noto a Roma / Ch’io son l’istesso, e ch’io / Tutto so, tutti assolvo, e tutto obblio [Let it be known to Rome / That I’m the same, and that I / know everything, absolve everyone, and forget everything].”

    Mozart’s opera premiered under his own direction a little less than two years after Marie Antoinette’s arrest, and only a month and a half after King Louis XVI & Marie Antoinette had fled Paris, been re-captured at Varennes, and been returned to the Tuleries Palace. Mozart’s “Tito,” in which Rome burns, premiered as part of the coronation celebrations of Leopold II, Marie Antoinette’s brother, as king of Bohemia in September 1791 (a year after he was crowned Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire).

    Two weeks after Mozart’s premiere, Marie Antoinette attended the Opéra for the last time, hearing Rameau’s “Castor et Pollux”: an English member of the audience (Samuel Romilly) recorded that when the “Regnez sur un peuple fidèle” was encored,” the audience “amazingly clapped.” Madame de Staël remarked of the same evening, “When the furies were… shaking their torches… I was filled with melancholy forebodings of the future.” Mozart’s “Tito” features Rome in similar flames, so it’s doubly important that BU’s video design preserved and included that element.

    WHY AN OPERA SERIA?
    Before he succeeded his opera-buffa-loving brother Joseph II, (then Grand Duke) Leopold had spent more than twenty years in Florence, attending lots of opera seria. In early 1791, had just initiated revivals of lavish opera seria in Vienna, had invited Italian singers to form a new Viennese opera seria troupe, and had just sanctioned fully-orchestral music in churches. So thank you Leopold for Mozart’s “Tito” and his orchestrally-conceived “Requiem” as well…

    “Tito”‘s librettist Caterino Mazzolà, originally from Venice (like Salieri), usually wrote opere buffe, but in 1791, he was briefly the Viennese court poet (recommended by Salieri), so he did whatever Leopold asked him to do. Mazzolà heavily revised and shortened Metastasio’s libretto, writing a brand new Act One finale (describing the uprising). So thank you Salieri for giving us Mazzolà!

    WHY MOZART?
    Salieri ended up turning the project down (as documented by Sergio Durante in “Music and Letters” 80 (1999), 560-94) because he was too busy with the “day to day activities of the court theaters” as Hofkapellmeister. Usually Salieri gave projects he couldn’t do to his protégé Joseph Weigl, but Weigl was busy filling in for Haydn, writing a fully-staged “Venere e Adone” music drama for Prince Anton Esterhazy’s installation/mini-coronation. So, thank you Haydn, for going to London… otherwise no “Tito” from Mozart.

    Mozart wrote it very quickly, mostly on-site in Prague, using paper bought that year (1791); none of the secco recitatives are in Mozart’s manuscript, so it’s not clear he wrote those himself. Thank you Süssmayr! (maybe)

    What a great choice, and so relevant in both our time and Mozart’s (et al.).

    Comment by Laura Stanfield Prichard — April 26, 2024 at 5:22 pm

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