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Monday, August 12, 2013

Opera Review: The SPQR-Word

Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble presents La Clemenza di Tito.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Hilary Ginther (left) as Sesto and Elana Gleason as Vitellia plot and plan in
Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble's new production of La Clemenza di Tito.
Photo by Angel Roy © 2013 Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble
Of the mature operas by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, it is La Clemenza di Tito that has the lowest reputation. The composer dashed off the work in ten days to meet a ridiculous crunch deadline--the coronation of Leopold II as King of Bohemia. The libretto, recycled from a Metastasio story, is somewhat dated with an 18th century approach to classical drama and politics and a musical style that clashes between Mozart's late-period innovations and the stage conventions of opera seria.

This new production by Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble and director Walker Lewis (currently running in repertory at the E. 13th St. Theater) makes Tito relevant by updating its palace intrigues and assassination attempts to the 20th century, putting all of Rome in pulp-era fashions and snazzy (if somewhat moth-eaten) military and paramilitary uniforms (the costumes are by Fordham graduate Nina Bova). With two trouser roles (Sesto and his friend Antonio), the military uniforms give the show a feeling not of menace but high camp--an almost-comic drama that emphasized  drama, intrigue and sexual ambiguity over power politics. This is all to the good.

The plot: Tito himself is the (historic) Roman emperor Titus. He is at the epicenter of this drama, the intended victim of an assassination plot perpetrated by Vitellia. She is a spurned suitor who wants revenge, planning to get it using her lover Sesto as her knife-wielding cat's-paw. The drama is heavy-handed at times, made more so by the fact that Mozart, working with all possible speed had no time to complete the recitatives--so there is a musical disparity extant in any performance of this score.

Sunday's performance (featuring the second of two alternating casts) featured a strong group of young singers, with two standouts. The first is Timothy Stoddard. This Idaho-born baritone moved up into the tenor range for the first time. He was a strong icy Tito, playing with the ambiguities of the character's relationship with the loyal Sesto, a little fey in a tight wool tunic and a dictator's military cape. In the second act, Mr. Stoddard projected the Emperor's inner conflict and delivering his arias with style and a weighty, solid tone. Mr. Stoddard improved as the opera progressed, finding his comfortable upper range under Christopher Fecteau's baton.

Hilary Ginther made a tremendous impression as Sesto. The would-be assassin is the meatiest role in the opera, a Cherubino type whose deep obsession with Vitellia nearly gets him thrown to the lions. Ms. Ginther found tremendous vocal resources for the Act I "Parte, parte o ben mio," soaring high over the stripped-down orchestra and filling the brick walls of the theater with a flood of sultry, penetrating tone. This is a big voice and an actor who could meet the role's demands, doing so with style and dramatic meaning.

As Vitellia, Elana Gleason projected the old-school glamour of a noir heroine without the sheer psychosis that one often sees in this role. She has a large voice with a sturdy, slightly metallic quality, that glowed and flourished in her big arias. Allison Waggener sang with strength and vocal beauty as Annio, the second trouser part, blending smoothly into the ensembles. Rachel Zatcoff was a pliant, potent soprano as Servillia, the opera's second female lead and a rival with Vitellia for Tito's affections. Finally, Dell'Arte veteran Brendan Stone made a welcome return as Publio, although he needs to get a good pair of boots to match the "military" look of the rest of the cast. (The black shoes don't cut it.)

In keeping with Dell'Arte's stripped-down approach to opera, music director Christopher Fecteau led an ensemble with a string quartet, double bass, single winds and a pair of horns. To match the pared-down orchestra, the show used just four singers (Kristina Malinaskaite, Heather Gerban, Charles Williamson, Sanford Schimel) to represent the chorus of Roman soldiers, court attendees and stage hands. It may be simple and on a budget, but this was another example of Dell'Arte's approach to staging opera--where the voices matter more than the spectacle onstage.

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