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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Opera Review: The Empire Doesn't Strike Back

The Metropolitan Opera brings back Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Conspirators: Vitellia (Elza van den Heever) and Sesto (Joyce DiDonato)
plot as Publio (Christian Van Horn) looks on in a scene from La Clemenza di Tito.
Photo by Richard Termine © 2019 The Metropolitan Opera.
In past seasons at the Metropolitan Opera, revivals of the company's 1984 Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production of Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito were often done out of a sense of obligation to the composer's reputation. However, this spring run, under the baton of new broom conductor Lothar Koenigs,  has been particularly inspired. On Tuesday night, in the penultimate performance of this opera this season, the cast, featuring soprano Elza van den Heever and mezzo Joyce DiDonato made the case for this work being one of the composer's strongest efforts.

Clemenza has always been a bit of an afterthought, even for the most hardcore Mozart lovers. The opera seria, written in just 18 days to meet a royal commission and (purportedly) using recitatives finished by Mozart's pupil Franz-Xavier Süssmayer, has never enjoyed the popularity of the three da Ponte operas or its twin brother Die Zauberflöte. (The two works do share some musical ideas.) It tells an old-fashioned story selected to enhance the enthronement of Hapsburg Emperor Franz Josef II as Emperor of Bohemia. Its message: that an absolute ruler can be lenient with his subjects, seems even more anachronistic in these troubled times.

In the title role of the Roman emperor Tito, (Titus) Matthew Polenzani gave a performance that built in power and momentum as the evening went on. Tito enters fairly late in the first act. His shuffling of romantic interests (the Emperor is linked to three separate women in the course of the drama) touches off the jealous rage of Vitellia, a princess whose family was removed from power by the rise of Vespasian and the succession of Tito to the throne. Eventually, his character reveals itself: romantically naïve but politically savvy and tempered with a sense of justice all too rare in Roman emperors.

Mr. Polenzani has enjoyed a rapid rise from supporting player to leading man at the Met, and this portrayal is a fine successor to his assumption of the role of Idomeneo in 2017. He sang with a clear, bright tone, brushing aside the cobwebs of this libretto to reveal a decent man who, despite his power is caught in an uncomfortable situation. He was particularly strong in his big Act II confrontation with Sesto (Joyce DiDonato) his would-be assassin, and continued to sing with a crisp and clean sound in the difficult last pages of the opera.

Joyce DiDonato is the legitimate star of this show. Her portrayal of Sesto is deep and complex, showing the turbulent psychological waters that are stirred up by Mozart's music. In an engaging reversal, it is Sesto who has the most famous arias in each act, the warm and sympathetic "Parto, parto" and the barn-burning Act II "Deh per questo istante", a challenging rondo that taxes the singer. Ms. DiDonato inhabited the role perfectly, on the downward curve from young blade to would-be killer to disheveled political prisoner in a convincing performance that drove the opera forward.

These performances mark the reunion of the singer with Elza van den Heever, their co-star and Donizetti duelling partner in the Met's 2012 run of Maria Stuarda. Here, the two portray lovers, not enemies, and their early scenes had some of the playfulness of Figaro. Ms. van den Heever gave a stunning performance as Vitellia, author of the conspiracy against Titus and a role that gets more dramatically over-the-top with each of her succeeding arias. Whoever coined the phrase "the higher and louder you sing, the crazier your character is" may have been talking about this particular role.

In support, soprano Ying Fang had a strong performance as Servilia, Sesto's sister. The Juilliard product is ready for bigger and better things at this house. Mezzo Emily D'Angelo provided an anchoring presence in the smaller role of Annio, who spends most of the opera being jilted by Tito's brief interest in marrying Servilia. As Publio, the lone dark voice in this opera, Christian Van Horn was an imposing stage presence, exceeded only by the dark, round tones of his bass. This was appropriate, as this court functionary's job is to lock up the conspirators.  Mr. Koenigs gave an engaging account of the score, although some notes from the orchestra pit (particularly in the timpani) could have used more clarity and focus.

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