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Joyce DiDonato as Sesto [Photo by Todd Rosenberg]
13 May 2014

La clemenza di Tito at Lyric Opera of Chicago

For its final production of the 2013-14 season Lyric Opera of Chicago featured Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito in a staging originating at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, in co-production with the Théatre du Capitole de Toulouse and l’Opéra de Marseille.

La clemenza di Tito at Lyric Opera of Chicago

A review by Salvatore Calomino

Above: Joyce DiDonato as Sesto [Photo by Todd Rosenberg]


The title character was portrayed by Matthew Polenzani, Vitellia, daughter of the late Emperor Vitellius by Amanda Majeski, Sesto by Joyce DiDonato, Annio by Cecelia Hall, Publio by Christian Van Horn, and Servilia by Emily Birsan. Sir Andrew Davis conducted the Lyric Opera Orchestra and Michael Black prepared the Lyric Opera Chorus.

The overture to the opera was led in the dignified and richly variegated spirit of Mozart’s late symphonic orchestrations. Toward the close of this introduction soldiers dressed in black, who had passed across the stage during the overture with measured discipline before the bust of an imperial figure, depart from the scene with a staircase appearing as an axis for a series of confrontations en ensemble. In dialogue preceding the first duet Sesto and Vitellia pursue an ongoing dispute concerning the position of the Emperor Tito. Because his current plans to marry the Eastern princess Berenice are perceived as a slight by Vitellia, she demands that Sesto participate in a plot to assassinate the ruler. Sesto’s protestations of the nobility of Tito cannot move Vitellia in her demands for revenge. In their ensuing duet, “Come ti piace, imponi” (“Command and control my every move”) Ms. DiDonato and Ms. Majeski elaborate on these sentiments, yet now Vitellia has clearly won over the loyalty of her admirer. Majeski’s impassioned portrayal of the wounded Vitellia is a marvel of vocal and dramatic artistry. Her sensitive use of vibrato and chest notes emphasizes her character’s determination and her assured position vis-à-vis Sesto. In the latter role DiDonato alternated hesitancy with committed declarations of steadfastness in keeping with the character’s vacillations in loyalty. She drew on appropriate decorations, such as appoggiatura, to underscore Sesto’s introspection and difficult choices. Almost immediately Annio appears to announce the departure of Berenice, since the Senate has refused to support the Emperor’s choice of a wife. Vitellia sees her chances open again, expressed in the aria “Deh si piacer mi vuoi” [“Now if you wish to please me”] followed by “Chi ciecamente crede” [“He who blindly believes”]. Majeski showed heightened enthusiasm in the line “Lascia sospetti tuoi” with an extended melisma on ‘Lascia.” In the second part of the aria her impressive embellishments and use of rubato in the repeat reinforced the character’s quick-edged instability. While taking advantage of Vitellia’s departure, Annio reminds Sesto that he wishes to wed Servilia, sister of Sesto. The duet of friendship, “Deh prende un dolce amplesso” [“Let me embrace you”], sung by the two mezzo sopranos Ms. Hall and Ms. DiDonato, was touching and suggested a foil of innocence in contrast to the previous scenes with Vitellia. The entrance of Tito immediately afterward was celebrated in this production with a ballet of swordsmen coordinated with the military march. Interspersed with choral responses and the nobly delivered recitative passages of Christian Van Horn’s Publio, Tito makes the unexpected announcement that he will himself marry Servilia before day’s end. Although shaken by the news, Annio departs with disciplined resolve, as was well illustrated here by Hall’s portrayal. In Tito’s first aria laying claim to the generosity inherent in his position, “Del più sublime soglio” [“Of the highest office”], Mr. Polenzani’s enthusiasm caused him to overstate the Emperor’s determination by singing much of the piece forte with little variation. His second aria, “Ah si fosse intorno al trono” [“Ah, if everyone near to my throne”], settled into the spirit and style in keeping with the scene depicted. After being informed by Annio that she is the chosen bride of Tito, Servilia approaches the Emperor in his palace. Her protest that she cannot retrieve her heart from Annio is answered by Tito’s aria. Here Polenzani introduced tasteful decoration on the line “ma saria felicità” [“would bring me happiness”], and sang the repeat with truly accomplished effects to emphasize the ruler’s gratefulness for Servilia’s honesty. At Vitellia’s re-entrance Majeski projected an especially unhinged character as she goaded Sesto to determined action against the Emperor. In the showpiece aria, “Parto, parto” [“I am going, I am going”], DiDonato’s Sesto showed a flawless technique and a fine sense of Mozartean style. Her pure top notes and accomplished trills supported by clarinet solo were addressed to the manipulative Vitellia in attempts to mollify the noblewoman’s recurring mistrust. In the second part of this aria beginning at “Guardami” [“Look at me”], DiDonato moved from a piano expression of tenderness to rapid runs alternating with rubato passages in her continued pledges of romantic loyalty and forthcoming action against the Emperor. Once Sesto has indeed departed as announced in his aria, Vitellia learns that Tito has had a change of heart and wishes to make her his bride. Majeski punctuated Vitellia’s shifts of temperament so that they contrasted noticeably with the calm innocence projected by Annio and Publio. In the last scene of the act Sesto’s monologue leading into a quintet of principals enhances the tumult [“tumulto”] of a threat against the Emperor’s life. While paying homage to the glory of Rome, DiDonato’s Sesto pleaded through extended vocal embellishments for guidance in saving the city’s splendor despite this ill-advised deed against Tito. As part of the final ensemble the presumed death of the Emperor was lamented with stately poignancy.

Act Two begins with the revelation by Annio to Sesto that Tito has not perished in the assault on the palace. While urging Sesto to remain in Rome and to request forgiveness from the Emperor, Hall gave an impassioned performance of Annio’s aria, “Torna di Tito a lato” [“Return to Tito”], which she concluded with silvery top notes. As Sesto vacillates between this advice and Vitellia’s declarations that he should flee, Publio enters and declares him under arrest for his deeds against the Emperor’s authority. During the brief scene of strategic confidence between Tito and Publio, Mr. Van Horn sang with ultimate artistry the featured aria for Publio, Captain of the Guard, “Tardi s’avvede d’un tradimento” [“Only too late does he become aware of betrayal”]. As his voice rose with noticeable, effortless excitement Van Horn embellished the close of the first part with melismatic decorations blended into a seamless line. His address to Tito was vocally fervent in the repeat. Before Sesto and the Emperor meet in conflict and reconciliation, Annio pleads again for Tito’s clemency. Hall sang “Tu fosti tradito” [“You were betrayed”] with commitment and increasingly emphatic projection as the danger for the captive Sesto becomes more serious. The subsequent private confrontation between Tito and Sesto, during which their mutual loyalties and political transformations are aired, was a dramatic focal point in this production. At its conclusion both characters express the difficulties of their personal choices in solo numbers. Tito’s renowned “Se all’ impero, amici Dei, necessario è un cor severo” [“If a severe heart is necessary to the empire, o gods”], was well conceived by Polenzani. He showed the character’s self-reflective state by emphasizing piano the repeat of “necessario,” while the second part of the aria sowed a nice sense of modulation, rising tones, and a final trill on “un altro cor” [“another heart”]. Before the ultimate pardon by Tito of all those involved in a conspiracy Vitellia sings her last aria of self-recrimination, “Non più di fiori vaghe catene discenda Imene” [“No longer will Hymen descend from the heavens to weave bridal chains”]. Majeski’s performance of this piece was outstanding, her range and dramatic descent from top to low chest notes on “veggo la morte ver me avanzar” [“I see death advancing upon me”] emphasizing the terror felt by her character in the face of undeniable guilt toward the Emperor. As a capstone to Majeski’s performance throughout the production, this aria and scene compensated for the questionable dramatic choice to close the opera with the Imperial Guard challenging Tito’s decision to grant clemency in the final part of the act.

Salvatore Calomino

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