01 August 2020

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — LA CLEMENZA DI TITO (L. Webber, V. Sheffield, M. Taylor, M. A. Zentner, B. Martinez, A. D. Peele; Fletcher Opera Institute, 11 February 2020)

IN REVIEW: the cast of UNCSA Fletcher Opera Institute's February 2020 production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's LA CLEMENZA DI TITO [Photograph © by André Dewan Peele]WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756 – 1791): La clemenza di Tito, K. 621Logan Webber (Tito), Virginia Sheffield (Vitellia), Mason Taylor (Sesto), Margaret Ann Zentner (Servillia), Brennan Martinez (Annio), André Dewan Peele (Publio); UNCSA Chorus and Symphony Orchestra; Steven White, conductor [Steven LaCosse, director; Nadir Bey, scenic designer; Bee Gable, costume designer; Jill Sawyer, wig and makeup designer; Ethan Saiewitz, lighting designer; Alex Jarus, properties director; James Scotland, technical director; A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute, University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Stevens Center, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, USA; Tuesday, 11 February 2020]

Few of the pièces d’occasion in opera’s history are of the quality of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito. Commissioned to celebrate Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II’s enthronement as King of Bohemia, neither Mozart nor La clemenza di Tito, a libretto by Pietro Metastasio that by the last decade of the Eighteenth Century had traveled widely throughout Europe in settings by a number of composers, was impresario Domenico Guardasoni’s first choice for the commission. A new text not having been procured, and the Habsburg court’s Kapellmeister Antonio Salieri having already been juggling too many projects, revision of Metastasio’s libretto was assigned to Caterino Mazzolà and composition of the score to Mozart, whose Don Giovanni won immense acclaim in Prague. Aside from a Nineteenth-Century assertion, now widely deemed to be apocryphal, that Leopold II’s Spanish consort dismissed the score as a Teutonic muddle, there is sadly little record of the impression made by La clemenza di Tito’s world première on 6 September 1791. Though Die Zauberflöte, premièred in Vienna twenty-four days after Clemenza’s first performance in Prague, and his settings of libretti by Lorenzo da Ponte continue to enjoy greater prominence in the international repertory, La clemenza di Tito has recently reclaimed at least some measure of the appreciation that the score deserves.

Performances of La clemenza di Tito are thankfully far more plentiful now than in previous generations, but the opera has not wholly expunged the stigma of its origins. It is often noted that Metastasian opera seria was already outdated in 1791, propounding that Clemenza was a step back from the compositional advancement embodied by Mozart’s da Ponte operas. Presented in Winston-Salem’s Stevens Center, University of North Carolina School of the Arts Fletcher Opera Institute’s production of La clemenza di Tito trusted the audience to discern the piece’s musical and theatrical merits. Compared with the domestic dramas and amorous intrigues of Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Così fan tutte, Clemenza’s political wrangling is undeniably stilted, but Mozart’s music gloriously transcends the doldrums of a hastily-completed work designed to panegyrize a monarch’s ego. Fletcher Opera Institute’s production also attained this distinction, accentuating both the timelessness of the opera’s emotional conflicts and the presence of Mozart’s genius on every page of the score.

Roman art provides many glimpses of the daily lives of plebeians, patricians, and imperial courtiers, but it is nonetheless impossible for Twenty-First-Century observers to determine precisely how Romans dressed and moved during Titus Vespasianus’s First-Century reign. In Fletcher Opera Institute’s staging of La clemenza di Tito, acclaimed director (and Fletcher Institute’s recently-appointed Artistic Director) Steven LaCosse and a team of talented, imaginative artists offered the audience an exuberantly cinematic realization of Metastasio’s, Mazzolà’s, and Mozart’s setting for Tito’s trials. Evocative but economical in the sense that they could easily be employed in productions of many operas, Nadir Bey’s scenic designs recreated tableaux of Imperial Rome with clear sight lines and bold colors. Especially engaging was the manner in which architectural elements of the Capitol appeared in Act Two to have been melted by the conflagration that raged in the prior act’s finale. Vivid hues also characterized Bee Gable’s costumes, which complemented Jill Sawyer’s wig and makeup designs and Ethan Saiewitz lighting designs to aid the singers in portraying credibly historical but three-dimensional figures. The production’s effectiveness was further enriched by the efforts of properties director Alex Jarus and technical director James Scotland, whose work ensured that UNCSA’s recreation of Titus Vespasianus’s Rome functioned with precision that provided a stimulating visual setting for the opera’s political and emotional machinations.

IN REVIEW: mezzo-soprano BRENNAN MARTINEZ as Annio (left) and soprano MARGARET ANN ZENTNER as Servillia (right) in UNCSA Fletcher Opera Institute's February 2020 production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's LA CLEMENZA DI TITO [Photograph © by André Dewan Peele]Teneri amanti: mezzo-soprano Brennan Martinez as Annio (left) and soprano Margaret Ann Zentner as Servillia (right) in UNCSA Fletcher Opera Institute’s February 2020 production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito
[Photograph © by André Dewan Peele]

Conductor Steven White’s credentials encompass performances of diverse repertoire with an array of musical institutions, including New York’s Metropolitan Opera, with which company his pacing of performances of Verdi’s La traviata with very different interpreters of the iconic principal rôles—Angela Gheorghiu, James Valenti, and Thomas Hampson in 2010; Natalie Dessay, Matthew Polenzani, and Dmitri Hvorostovsky in 2012—demonstrated a notable affinity for extracting purest ores of bel canto from dissimilar vocal terrains. In UNCSA’s Clemenza di Tito, White’s conducting established and maintained musical and dramatic momentum, his tempi uniting passion with Classical poise. This equilibrium illuminated the score’s musical variety, accentuating the fluidity with which passages that recall Händel, Hasse, and Johann Christian Bach are balanced by others that anticipate Beethoven, Weber, and even Verdi, whose Abigaille and Odabella are spiritual descendants of Mozart’s Vitellia.

Under White’s direction, the UNCSA Symphony Orchestra perceptibly exulted in the difficulties of Mozart’s part writing. Of particular note was the superb playing of principal clarinetist Ramiro Soto, not least in Sesto’s ‘Parto, parto, ma tu ben mio,’ but his colleagues routinely equaled his work, enlivening the performance with rich but fleet playing. White’s choices of tempo were guided both by Mozart’s indications and by the unique capabilities of the singers. Musicologists and music lovers alike are tempted to speculate about how Mozart’s career as a composer of opera might have developed beyond La clemenza di Tito and Die Zauberflöte, the latter score often being cited as the more progressive. Without distorting Mozart’s idiom or obscuring the audible stamp of Clemenza’s late-Eighteenth-Century context, White and his colleagues in the pit affirmed that, when Clemenza was first performed, the Roman milieux of Wagner’s Rienzi and Berlioz’s Les Troyens were not so distant on the operatic horizon.

Musicologists continue to devise and debate theories of by whom Clemenza di Tito’s passages of recitativo secco were written, the most prevalent assertions being that, in accordance with common practice in the Eighteenth Century, they were likely produced not by the master composer responsible for the arias and ensembles but by an assistant or a student. The most plausible creator of Clemenza di Tito’s recitatives is Mozart’s pupil Franz Xaver Süssmayr, to whom Mozart’s widow Constanze would later entrust completion of her husband’s Requiem. There are likely far more instances than are known or acknowledged in which recitativi secchi in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century operas were not written by the composers whose names appear on the scores’ covers. More deserving of scrutiny than their origins are performances in which the recitatives in Clemenza di Tito are accompanied in the same jaunty manner in which their counterparts in Cimarosa’s Il matrimonio segreto or Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia might be handled. In UNCSA s Clemenza di Tito, Angela Vanstory Ward proved to be a maestra di cembalo whose continuo playing was informed by awareness of the singers’ enunciations and sensitivity to dramatic situations and textual subtleties. In this performance, passages of recitative led organically from the end of one aria or ensemble to the beginning of the next, and Ward’s realization of the continuo never kindled, as is sometimes the case, an expectation that Mozart’s (or Rossini’s) jovial Figaro would infiltrate the Campidoglio. The stylistic integrity of Ward’s playing was an invaluable boon to the performers and the performance.

IN REVIEW: tenor LOGAN WEBBER in the title rôle of UNCSA Fletcher Opera Institute's February 2020 production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's LA CLEMENZA DI TITO [Photograph © by André Dewan Peele]Ecco l’imperatore: tenor Logan Webber in the title rôle of UNCSA Fletcher Opera Institute's February 2020 production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's La clemenza di Tito
[Photograph © by André Dewan Peele]

Mozart’s writing for the chorus in La clemenza di Tito often exemplifies the Salzburger’s perpetuation of Gluck’s and Salieri’s initiatives to recreate in opera the rôle of choruses in Ancient Greek drama. UNCSA’s choristers convincingly portrayed the denizens of Tito’s Rome, singing ‘Serbate, o Dei custodi’ in Act One with suitably imperial majesty and exhilaratingly imparting the confusion and terror of the populace as flames consumed the Campidoglio. In Act Two, the young voices blended beautifully in an affecting account of ‘Ah, grazie si rendano al sommo fattor,’ and the grandeur with which ‘Che del ciel, che degli Dei’ was sung lent both the opera’s drama and the performance a palpable immediacy. In the tradition of the opera’s first performance, this Clemenza exuded a sense of occasion, intensified by the strength of the choral singing.

With a conductor of White’s caliber on the podium, sagaciously supporting the singers, it was easy to forget that this Clemenza di Tito featured UNCSA students just beginning their careers rather than long-established artists with considerable experience in Mozart repertoire. As Publio, the dutiful captain of Tito’s Prætorian Guard, baritone André Dewan Peele sang and acted energetically, his vocalism and motions exuding martial bravado in the mercurial Act One trio with Vitellia and Annio. Peele voiced Publio’s aria in Act Two, ‘Tardi s’avvede d’un tradimento,’ appealingly, and the dramatic involvement of his delivery of his lines in the trio with Sesto and Tito disclosed impressive theatricality. Peele found greater depth in Publio’s character than some interpreters of the rôle have done and explored them with inviolable musicality.

Soprano Margaret Ann Zentner’s portrayal of Servilia was similarly characterized by dramatic sensitivity allied with musical prowess. Distinguished by consistent tonal beauty, her vibrant singing in the Act One duet with Annio, ‘Ah, perdona al primo affetto,’ compellingly embodied the character’s anguish at learning from the man she loves that Tito has chosen her to be his empress. Zentner sang Servilia’s Act Two aria ‘S’altro che lagrime per lui non tenti’ with judicious vehemence, communicating the meaning of the text with unmistakable cognizance of its importance to the opera’s dénouement. Also to the young soprano’s credit was her unfailing fluency in Mozart’s musical language. The quality of Zentner’s performance reminded listeners accustomed to hearing lesser voices in the rôle that Servilia was sung in years past by artists of the ilk of Giulietta Simionato, Lucia Popp, Catherine Malfitano, Edith Mathis, Helen Donath, and Barbara Bonney.

Convincingly, even impishly masculine, the Annio of mezzo-soprano Brennan Martinez ignited UNCSA’s Clemenza di Tito with febrile stage presence and incendiary singing. In both the duettino with Sesto and the duet with Servilia in Act One, Martinez immersed herself in the drama without neglecting musical values, and she joined her colleagues in a pulse-quickening performance of the electrifying trio with Vitellia and Publio. The respective tessiture of Annio’s arias in Act Two, ‘Torna di Tito al lato’ and ‘Tu fosti tradito,’ occasionally seemed uncomfortable for Martinez, particularly at the upper end of her range, but her top notes were assured and certain of intonation. She overcame the obstacle of an unbecoming wig more suggestive of the Duchessa di Mantova’s page than of a Roman patrician with imperturbable savvy, and her singing exhibited admirably mature artistry.

IN REVIEW: soprano VIRGINIA SHEFFIELD as Vitellia in UNCSA Fletcher Opera Institute's February 2020 production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's LA CLEMENZA DI TITO [Photograph © by André Dewan Peele]La signora vuole vendetta: soprano Virginia Sheffield as Vitellia in UNCSA Fletcher Opera Institute’s February 2020 production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito
[Photograph © by André Dewan Peele]

Owing in no small part to a single high note that often proves to be troublesome for larger voices, the rôle of the vengeful Vitellia is now often entrusted to singers with relatively modest vocal means. Epitomized by the fearsomely demanding arias sung by the titular heroine of Luigi Cherubini’s Ifigenia in Aulide, premièred in Torino in 1788, music composed for the first Vitellia, Maria Marchetti Fantozzi, suggests that her vocal capabilities were anything but modest. UNCSA honored Fantozzi’s legacy with a Vitellia with formidable vocal resources and the technical wherewithal to deploy them effectively. Soprano Virginia Sheffield brought visual and vocal glamor to her depiction of Vitellia, declaiming every word of the character’s recitatives with Shakespearean immediacy.

The historical Vitellia was both the daughter of an emperor, the short-reigned Aulus Vitellius Germanicus, and the wife of a Senator, and the fusion of emotion and aristocratic pride evident in Sheffield’s singing in the Act One duet with Sesto, ‘Come ti piace, imponi,’ revealed the singer’s intuitive identification with the proud woman she portrayed. She voiced the aria ‘Deh, se piacer mi vuoi’ with grace that belied her youth, her mastery of Mozart’s vocal writing surpassing that heard from singers with far more experience. Sheffield‘s valiant attempt at the harrowing top D in the trio with Annio and Publio, ‘Vengo, aspettate,’ missed the mark, but the dramatic potency of her singing propelled the ensemble excitingly. This was also true of her performance in the Act Two trio with Sesto and Publio, ‘Se al volto mai ti senti,’ in which she conveyed the full panoply of Vitellia’s complex feelings. The pinnacle of Sheffield’s characterization was the rondo ‘Non più di fiori.’ The soprano conquered the music’s challenges with apparent ease, freeing her to focus on expressing the sentiments of the text. Rather than the whining shrew sketched by some singers, the Vitellia who sprang to life in Sheffield’s portrait was a sympathetic figure, a wronged woman whose quests for retribution and romantic fulfillment were born of deep wounds.

IN REVIEW: countertenor MASON TAYLOR (left) as Sesto in UNCSA Fletcher Opera Institute's February 2020 production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's LA CLEMENZA DI TITO [Photograph © by André Dewan Peele]Amico leale: countertenor Mason Taylor as Sesto (left) in UNSCA Fletcher Opera Institute’s February 2020 production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito
[Photograph © by André Dewan Peele]

Even in this age of celebrity countertenors with extensive operatic repertoires, it remains unusual to hear a countertenor sing Mozart’s music for Sesto, who finds himself in the unenviable straits of loving a woman who detests the emperor to whom he is loyal. The rôle was originated by soprano castrato Domenico Bedini, about whose career beyond his participation in Clemenza’s première and subsequent retirement from performing staged opera a year later virtually no credible information survives. Domenico Guardasoni’s correspondence leaves no uncertainty about the engagement of a very accomplished castrato being integral to the coronation opera’s success, and Mozart’s music for Sesto suggests that Bedini indeed possessed a superb bravura technique, an extensive range, and well-honed dramatic instincts. His performance in this Clemenza di Tito affirmed that these qualities are also crucial components of countertenor Mason Taylor’s artistry.

Like Sheffield’s Vitellia, Taylor’s Sesto communicated profound inner turmoil in their duet in Act One, ‘Come ti piace, imponi,’ and the intelligence and attractiveness of his singing were no less conspicuous in the subsequent duettino with Annio, ‘Deh, prendi un dolce amplesso.’ Beloved by singers capable of negotiating its changes of tempo and temperament and the rightly-feared salvos of triplets, the aria ‘Parto, parto, ma tu ben mio’ is the most familiar vocal piece in Clemenza di Tito, and its renown has fortunately proved to be immune to countless poor performances. Taylor’s singing not only justified the aria’s continuing popularity but, more critically, affirmed Mozart’s genius for astute character development through music. Taylor met this music’s bravura demands with equanimous aplomb and unflinchingly traversed the broad range, extending to secure top B♭s.

In Act Two, the countertenor voiced Sesto’s lines in first the trio with Vitellia and Publio, ‘Se al volto mai ti senti,’ and later the trio with Tito and Publio, ‘Quello di Tito è il volto,’ with unaffected theatrical shrewdness. Sesto is an exhausting sing, and the aria ‘Deh, per questo istante solo’ falls just beyond the boundaries of some singers’ stamina: though understandably tiring, Taylor sang ‘Deh, per questo istante solo’ energetically and expressively, immersing himself in the psychological upheaval of Sesto’s predicament. The torment of this Sesto’s disquiet and remorse was palpable, bared to the audience by Taylor’s sensitive but incisive singing of some of Mozart’s most daunting music.

IN REVIEW: tenor LOGAN WEBBER as Tito Vespasiano in UNCSA Fletcher Opera Institute's February 2020 production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's LA CLEMENZA DI TITO [Photograph © by André Dewan Peele]Ecco l’imperatore: tenor Logan Webber as the titular Emperor, Tito Vespasiano, in UNCSA Fletcher Opera Institute’s February 2020 production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito
[Photograph © by André Dewan Peele]

If the writings of historian Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus can be believed, the two-year imperial reign of Titus Flavius Cæsar Vespasianus Augustus was a time of peace, prosperity, and level-headed administration, sharply contrasted with the tumultuous tenures of Caligula, Nero, and the four emperors who ruled during the year following Nero’s suicide, the fourth of whom was Titus’s father. Notable amongst Titus’s magnanimous acts were his tireless efforts to provide tangible, lasting aid to victims of the cataclysmic eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. Created by Italian tenor Antonio Baglioni, who was the first Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni four years before the première of La clemenza di Tito, Mozart’s Tito is a figure whose magnanimity, whilst unmistakably intended to flatter the noble personage whose coronation the opera celebrated, has broader, humanistic implications. This universality was the core of UNCSA’s production, in which Logan Webber touchingly explored the vulnerabilities of a man whose throne exacerbated his struggles to balance matters of state and affairs of the heart.

Though he is the opera’s title character, Tito did not receive from Metastasio and Mazzolà the acuity of characterization that was lavished upon Vitellia and Sesto, but, from his first entrance in this performance, Webber found in Mozart’s music opportunities to vitalize Tito as both man and emperor. The vastly different moods of the pair of arias in Act One, ‘Del più sublime soglio’ and ‘Ah, se fosse intorno al trono,’ were adroitly contrasted, the tenor’s attention to text revealing often-ignored facets of the emperor’s constitution. Whether intoning conversational recitative or careening fiorature, Webber allied handsome tones with unflagging commitment to animating Tito’s tribulations. The dramatic thrust of the Act Two trio with Sesto and Publio, ‘Quello di Tito è il volto,’ drew from him vocal acting of tremendous impact. The intimidating bravura passages in Tito’s ‘Se all’impero, amici Dei’ tested as accomplished an exponent of Mozart’s tenor rôles as Nicolai Gedda, but Webber’s confident voicing of the aria divulged the care with which the young singer prepared the part. Remembered as one of the Habsburg line’s most enlightened scions, Leopold II would surely have been pleased by Webber’s thoughtful but commanding portrayal of the figure intended to gratify the royal vanity.

Long disparaged as an inconsequential work unworthy of comparison with Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte, and Die Zauberflöte, La clemenza di Tito was confirmed by Fletcher Opera Institute’s production to be a score pervaded by the brilliance of Mozart’s artistic maturity. That a piece regarded as archaic at the time of its première in 1791 can seem grippingly modern in 2020 is an irrefutable testament to its creators’ ingenuity. That a performance of that piece wholly capitalizes on its potential is a testament to the artists involved with its staging. Mozart’s Clemenza di Tito is a significant work: Fletcher Opera Institute’s Clemenza di Tito was a significant achievement.