Daydream a little with me. First, conjure a mighty nation in decline, its people having grown cynical and decadent, its imperialistic greed and military bullying having earned it the fear and hatred of much of the world. Now imagine that a leader comes along whose compassion and generosity transform the country into a place of hope. When this leader is given a pile of riches by his grateful citizenry, he gives it to the survivors of a catastrophic natural disaster. When his intended bride confesses she loves someone else, he releases her without hesitation, taking joy in the fact that he’s bringing joy to others. Without opportunities for kindness and mercy, he says, ruling a country would be an onerous burden. Needless to say, the people love him.
Now let’s put our man to a test—for instance, by having his closest and most trusted confidant get his head all turned around by a romantic obsession with an enemy of the state. The guy winds up not only burning down the capitol but also attempting to assassinate his commander in chief. You know what the leader does, even after a Senate hearing confirms his friend’s guilt? He pardons him. He pardons the enemy of the state. He even restores both of them to high positions in the community. Rather than buckling under to his vengeance-seeking advisers, he remains true to his convictions. And the people love him even more.
Given our current political circumstances, the story is enough to make the hardiest of liberals blubber like toddlers—though even The West Wing would reject the plotline as an impossible fantasy. And one that’s been done to death, too: The last opera that Mozart completed, La Clemenza di Tito (“The Clemency of Titus”) was based on the life of an ancient Roman emperor and set to a libretto that had already been used by more than 40 other composers.
It’s no accident that Mozart’s is the version that’s come down to us. Sunlight suffuses the score, not only in the indelible melody of the love duet between Emperor Tito’s would-be empress, Servilia, and her lover, Annio, but also in the improbable optimism that ripples through the orchestra as Tito’s traitorous friend, Sesto, bids his fellow Romans what he assumes will be a final farewell before his execution. It’s as if, every step of way, the Utopian radiance of the opera’s happy ending is struggling to burst through the tragic story preceding it. Could there be a more ecstatic case of wish fulfillment in the repertoire?
Leave it to Mozart to transform a dream of enlightened leadership into a palpable reality. And leave it, sadly, to Washington National Opera to scuttle things on the production end. There’s not much life—let alone ecstasy—to be found in the production the company has imported from the Teatro Municipal de Santiago de Chile. Some Mozart scholars claim that Tito is less stage-worthy than the composer’s other operas because it’s hamstrung by the structural conventions of the opera seria style in which original librettist Pietro Metastasio wrote. But though the piece admittedly needs more directorial attention than, say, the trio of operatic masterpieces on which Mozart collaborated with dramatist Lorenzo da Ponte—Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Così fan Tutte—there’s no reason why the work’s inspirational magic can’t be distilled by the right production team.
It’s hard to tell where the work of original stage director Michael Hampe leaves off and the restaging of associate director Marga Niec begins, so inconsistent are the treatments of character and blocking. Nearly all of the singers show themselves to be engaged and engaging actors, but they appear to be following self-contradicting direction—believably naturalistic in their behavior in one scene and nonreactive in another, or flip-flopping from real communication with one another in recitatives to posing in presentational tableaux during the numbers. Even the formal moments lack internal consistency, as in the finale, whose principal characters freeze in gestures of adulation before Tito while the chorus points, waves, and mugs like modern-day parade-watchers.
It’s a mess. But what makes this Tito really deadly is the way the singers lose their energy nearly every time the music slows down. The torpor makes many of the scenes play like slo-mo re-enactments, and given the tempo-bound blocking, one thing is clear: Conductor Heinz Fricke is part of the problem. Making the fatal error of loving Mozart so much that he smothers him, he conducts the music gorgeously—this is easily the most sensually beautiful Mozart I’ve heard from the WNO’s orchestra, particularly in the superbly played wind parts. His phrasing, however, emphasizes breadth and rounded finish at the expense of movement, attack, and dynamic range. His pacing is practically somnambulant. Sure, parts of the score benefit from a mellow approach—but not all of the parts.
Fricke, who this season celebrates 60 years on the podium, is clearly a product of Mozart performance practice from two generations ago. Even back then, though, he would’ve been pushing things with the kind of tempo he offers here. Rarely has this conductor produced results so musically distinguished yet so damaging to the drama. So hats off to a cast that consistently infuses the music with the theatrical spark so lacking in the pit. In a vocally gifted (and singularly attractive) ensemble, mezzo Marina Domashenko triumphs as Sesto. Her upholstered timbre and luminous high notes are lavished on some of the best music in the piece. Her understated acting is convincing and sensitive to story arc. And her physical beauty translates into an unexpectedly credible boyish handsomeness for this trouser role. In the other trouser role, Annio, mezzo Jossie Perez turns in a swaggering, suitably raw-nerved performance, with a voice of fullness at the bottom and flinty penetration higher up.
That mix of rich lower register and edgy top is common to both sopranos, as well: Hoo-Ryoung Hwang (Servilia), whose high notes are troubled with an acidic vibrato, and Tatiana Pavlovskaya (Vitellia, the femme fatale who stirs Sesto to his act of terrorism), who manages to thrill both with her punchy chest voice and her knife-edged upper extension. Pavlovskaya makes something delicious out of the character’s mercurial coquettishness, too—at least when the directors aren’t having her moon about listlessly at moments of highest tension. Michael Schade’s Tito spends much of his time shuffling through the opera with hunched shoulders and an inappropriately petulant grimace, but his big, juicy tenor (marred by a slight nasality) pays dividends at climactic moments. And in the single low-lying role, the third Russian in the ensemble, bass Nikolai Didenko is smoothly, darkly impressive as Publio, Tito’s head of homeland security. (How would American opera companies cast productions if the Soviet Union hadn’t fallen?)
Germán Droghetti’s sets (co-designed with Hampe) and costumes opt for the safe route of evoking Mozart’s day—and they’re all very pretty and neatly proportioned. But what if WNO had actually chosen to do Tito precisely because of its relevance to our present-day world and actively engaged its themes of domestic terrorism, capital punishment, and the application of genuinely Christian values to governance? Must we limit glimpses of our world on the operatic stage to productions of Nixon in China and Dead Man Walking, or is Mozart also eligible for the relevance club? Why not put our own Capitol onstage, burning, with senators fleeing every which way in confusion? And when President Tito confronts the saboteurs in his own administration, why not show him confounding all expectations by extending the hand of clemency, sitting down to learn why his enemies hate him, and seeking ways to close the rift?
Now there’s an opera worth daydreaming about.CP