Andrew Davis in a Fresh, Exciting Clemenza

Mozart, La Clemenza di Tito: Soloists, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Sir Andrew Davis, (conductor), Civic Opera House, Chicago. 8.3.2014 (JLZ)

Tito: Matthew Polenzani
Sesto: Joyce DiDonato
Vitellia: Amanda Majeski
Annio: Cecelia Hall
Servilia: Emily Birsan
Publio: Christian Van Horn[Br]
Conductor: Sir Andrew Davis
Original Director & Set Designer: Sir David McVicar
Revival Director: Marie Lambert
Costume Designer: Jenni Tiramani
Lighting Designer: Jennifer Tipton
Chorus Master: Michael Black
Choreographer: David Greeves
Associate Set Designer: Bettina Neuhaus

After a quarter-century, Mozart’s 1791 opera seria La clemenza di Tito returned to the Civic Opera House in Sir John McVicar’s production, originally designed for the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence (in conjunction with the Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse and the Opéra de Marseille).

 McVicar’s stage conception is stark, with unadorned sets and dark colors. While the libretto by Caterina Mazzolà (based on Metastasio) celebrates the generosity of the first-century Roman emperor Titus in forgiving those who plotted against him, the production offers a post-modern spin by suggesting that the clemency goes against Roman law. An emphasis on the military aspects was quite effective in the first act, where the guards used martial arts and highlighted the distance between the emperor and his people; the guards separated the crowds in all the ensemble scenes. McVicar’s comments in the program help to explain the production’s final gesture, when Publio and the Praetorian guards threatened Tito as the curtain dropped. This looming threat left the opera open-ended, as if something more were to occur, while the text and music imply a more conventional resolution of the drama’s conflicts. As an aesthetic matter, it was not entirely convincing.

 As Sesto, Joyce DiDonato sang with finesse, especially in the conflicting emotions of the aria, “Parto, parto,” paying close attention to the phrasing of the text. DiDonato started at a lower level, letting her passion grow as she reached the climax—a defining moment, and one that set the tone for the other principals.

 As Vitellia, Amanda Majeski was similarly impressive, even stylish, with an even range that resonated clearly, even as she faced the sometimes challenging vocal lines. Her first-act duet “Come ti piace, imponi” was commanding, and set the dramatic and musical tone from the start. Yet her second-act aria “S’altro che lacrime” was even more powerful; its wide range does not always receive the low tones and rich high notes that Majeski gave. It was an impeccable performance, both technically and interpretively.

 Bass-baritone Christian Van Horn stood out with his nuanced approach to the role of Publio. He was clear and distinctive in the first act, but in the second-act aria “Tardi, s’avveda d’un tradimento,” he, too, was exemplary in his lyricism, clarity, and elegance. My hunch is that Van Horn would be equally outstanding as Leporello or Don Giovanni.

 In the role of Annio, Cecelia Hall gave the character appropriate style, and like many others, was even stronger in the second act. The aria “Torna di Tito” at the opening commanded attention for its impassioned delivery. Emily Birsan offered an appropriately dignified Servillia, with a lithe reading of her single aria “Ah, se fosse intorno al trona.” As Tito, tenor Matthew Polenzani’s tone in the first act was sometimes unnecessarily loud and monochromatic, but in the extended scenes of Act II—the recitativo accompagnato that underscores Tito’s forgiveness for his political enemies—he was commanding, singing the role with dignity and poise.

 Sir Andrew Davis gave a persuasive interpretation, leading the orchestra with insight and great attention to detail—details that are not always made so accessible. The vocal duets called to mind similar-sounding music in Così fan tutte, which Mozart composed around the same time. Above all, Davis made the ensemble sound fresh and exciting, a memorable performance of this important score.

 James L. Zychowicz