April 20, 2009
John Von Rhein

CLASSICAL REVIEW 'La Clemenza di Tito'
Chicago Opera Theater boldly rescues 'forgotten' Mozart masterpiece

"La Clemenza di Tito," as director Christopher Alden rightly observes, has gotten a bad rap for most of the last century. Only in recent decades have opera companies welcomed Mozart's penultimate opera into the repertory, as performers and audiences discover a psychologically probing drama set to one of his greatest, if least well-known, scores.

Chicago Opera Theater added "The Clemency of Titus" to its Mozart canon Saturday at the Harris Music and Dance Theater in a gripping production by Alden that represents the work's first professional staging in the area in nearly 20 years. Once again, COT general director Brian Dickie's casting of exciting, young artists in congenial roles pays off in consistently impressive singing. It's bolstered by the incisive authority Jane Glover brings to her conducting and the splendid playing of her orchestra.

Alden's brilliant theater mind can sometimes lead to reckless revisionism, as his 2000 "Rigoletto" at Lyric Opera unfortunately proved. But here his brilliance illuminates rather than obfuscates. The director turns the Roman emperor Tito's central dilemma - should he reward the treachery of the people he loves and trusts with death or forgiveness? - into a psychodrama at once edgy and disturbing.

The emperor (Dominic Armstrong) is weak, troubled and borderline loony, shambling around his marble palace in purple pajamas. Tito's hold on power, not to mention his sanity, is tenuous at best. Yet his love for Sesto (Renata Pokupic) explains his tortured hesitation to sign the young man's death warrant. Sesto is torn between his loyalty to Tito and his devotion to the scheming Vitellia (Amanda Majeski), a sexual predator who will stop at nothing to revenge herself on the emperor and seize his throne.

Andrew Cavanaugh Holland's minimalist unit set consists of a towering diagonal wall on which Sesto scrawls graffiti. Terese Wadden's costumes mix Roman togas and helmets with tacky 1950s dresses. The chorus members are grotesques done up in white masks and head scarves. Lighting designer Chris Binder freezes the protagonists in stark shadows.

On Saturday, Pokupic, a superb Croatian mezzo, nailed each of Sesto's arias with aplomb, not least the famous "Parto, parto," in tandem with Charlene Zimmerman's stunning clarinet obbligato. Majeski threw herself into Vitellia's neurotic edginess, making her Act 2 confessional a genuine tour de force that brought down the house.

Armstrong's Tito wielded a strong, attractive tenor, albeit a bit tight under pressure. Paula Murrihy as Annio and Charlotte Dobbs as Servilia blended voices gracefully in their amorous duet. Andrew Funk sang an imposing Publio.

Behold, if you will, "Clemenza di Tito" boldly liberated from the stilted conventions of opera seria. This is an evening of modern music theater you mustn't miss.